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Monika Schroder, a librarian at the American Embassy in New Delhi and former teacher at international schools in Chile, Egypt, and Oman, has made a second career for herself as an author of middle-grade children’s novels. Knowing the hopes and aspirations of children and being acquainted with different cultures give her an advantage as a writer of literary fiction for kids. Her debut novel, The Dog in the Wood, is set in World War II Germany and features a family of refuges. Her forthcoming and third book, My Brother’s Shadow, takes place in post-World War I Berlin. Saraswati’s Way, her current and sole non-historical fiction novel, features an orphan in India facing harsh realities reminiscent of Oliver Twist. It has already garnered a few honors, including the Notable Social Studies Tradebook for Young People.Schroder’s matter-of-fact narrative style blunts the impact of the sad events in 12-year-old Akash’s life for the young reader. One of the most tragic events has already occurred at the start of the novel; his mother has died, giving birth to a baby that lived only for three days. Akash has no recollection of his mother despite his attempts to remember what she looked like. He lives with his extended family in a two-room hut, but they live in dire poverty. Akash, however, has been blessed with a gift for numbers and his greatest desire is to win a scholarship to a better school.
Shortly after his father dies, Akash’s grandmother sends him away with their landlord so Akash can ease their debt by working on the man’s quarry. Eventually, the boy runs away to Delhi, where he falls into the company of a gang of railway children who pick pockets and inhale glue to stave off their hunger. (Each of the kids has their own heartbreaking story, invoking the compassion of the reader for the parentless boys and girls who frequent train stations.) Sometimes, Akash has to face moral dilmmas, but no matter what he does, the boy comes off as a believable and likeable protagonist. His undiluted love for mathematics, his courage to survive his ordeals, and his determination, in the face of countless obstacles, to get into a school are all endearing traits.
Schroder’s language is poetic and vivid. “Their bare branches ended in thick knobs held upward like the fists of angry men. The drought had left the soil cracked, and the spice plants looked starved. Sometimes a trickle of rain speckled the ground enough to give off the promising smell of wet mud. But after this cruel teaser the sky … gave no relief from the sticky heat … like a punishment with no end in sight.” The writer also conveys a good sense of culture with her descriptions of festivals and Akash’s father’s funeral rites, without indulging in them for the sake of inclusion. (Her one inconsistency, though perhaps intentionally done for clarity, is referring to the village boy’s uncle and aunt as Uncle Jagdesh and Aunt Kamla while using Indian terms for his father and grandmother—Bapu and Dadima.) Her author’s note would have been more helpful if she had explained that the majority of Hindus worship God in many forms and call Him by different names, but they believe the many forms to be aspects of the same God.
Schreoder does not underestimate the child reader’s ability to grapple with serious issues, including a vignette of a molester trying to lure Akash. She shines the spotlight on underprivileged lives in Saraswati’s Way and acknowledges in her author’s note that in real life there would only be a “slim chance” for a boy like Akash to fulfill his dream. Readers will find the novel enlightening about the preferential treatment of boys, child labor, Vedic shortcuts for math, and Indian culture. Young readers may feel grateful for the education they receive as well as an understanding that others less privileged than them also possess dignity, courage, and aspirations and that all children deserve to have the chance for a good life.
Tara Menon is a freelance writer based in Lexington, Massachusetts.