January 2007

A survivor’s compelling story

By Patricia McCormick
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In this National Book Award finalist, 13-year-old Lakshmi lives in a hut, perched on a mountainside in the Himalayas. She loves the stunning beauty of the mountain's long purple shadows, the tallow pumpkin blossoms that close in the evening as the white jasmine open. On nights when the moon is full, the hillside is bathed in a magical white light, the glow of the perpetual snows that blanket the mountaintops.

This beauty, however, contrasts with the ugliness of Lakshmi's fate as a young woman in that world. Children's lives are precarious, but girls' lives are expendable. Lakshmi's lazy stepfather does little work and spends his days gambling away money playing cards at the tea shop. The family is unprepared when monsoon rains come and wash away any hope of good crops and a better future. Lakshmi finds herself in Calcutta in the Happiness House, where she is forced into prostitution. At first, she believes she can do this despicable work and pay off her debt and return home, only to realize later that believing is stupidity, hope an affliction.

In Patricia McCormick's beautifully crafted free verse novel, each poem is a hotline to the mind and voice of Lakshmi, and accumulations of detail delineate her circumstances and her inclination toward hope. Readers might see in her the fate of other survivors. When she looks in the mirror and sees a corpse, she might remind readers of Elie Wiesel at the end of Night, witnessing the same reflection after his time in concentration camps. When Lakshmi is told, If they find out you can read and write, they will think you are planning to escape, the story of Frederick Douglass learning to read might come to mind. And when she realizes she will always be in debt, always cheated out of her earnings, hers is a sharecropper's experience, her own body the bartered crop.

When Lakshkmi asks her mother, Why must women suffer so? her mother replies, Simply to endure is to triumph, a resounding reminder of survivors of slavery and genocide in cities all over the world. Lakshmi's story of survival is told in poetry that will reach right into her readers' souls.


Dean Schneider teaches middle school English.

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By Patricia McCormick
ISBN 9780786851713

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