Gloria Whelan is the author of numerous award-winning children’s books, including several historical fictional novels set in different countries, even in places she hasn’t been to. Her latest work, Small Acts of Amazing Courage, is a historical novel for young adults, set in India and England in 1919, four years before Whelan was born. She has used India as a backdrop for her writing before in Homeless Bird, winner of the National Book Award, a novel that tells the shocking story of a widowed girl abandoned in Benares by her in-laws.
Small Acts of Amazing Courage, like Homeless Bird, is rich in cultural details and evocative of setting, but whereas the latter has an Indian heroine, the heroine in the former is a fifteen-year-old English girl who was born and brought up in colonial India. Whelan’s strength as a storyteller leaves an indelible impression in both books. In Small Acts of Amazing Courage, the charming voice of Rosalind, the protagonist, lures the reader across time and place to a southeastern Indian town shortly after World War I. Her father is a Major in the British Indian Army who returns from having led a battalion of Gurkha Rifles.Rosalind’s family lives a privileged colonial life in a huge house, waited on by servants.
Rosalind, true to many coming-of-age heroines, has a kind and courageous heart, and a rebellious streak. Rosalind often follows her conscience in the most unconventional manner. In fact, personality and plot are entwined in the story, which is really about her surmounting society’s rigid rules and authoritative familial figures to do what she thinks is correct.
Right at the outset we learn Rosalind is different. She wears her hair in an unacceptable fashion, “My hair grows and grows like leaves on a rain tree. I won’t tie it back neatly or wear a band. Worst of all, I go outside in the Indian sun without an Indian hat,” she says. She goes to the bazaar against her parents’ wishes, eats forbidden foods and mingles with servants. Her best friend, Isha, is the daughter of her ayah who is already married and lives with her mother-in-law. Rosalind’s father gets the idea of straightening his daughter out by sending her to England for her schooling, despite her mother’s objections. It was the norm for English children in India to be sent to England for their education.
We get a good picture of early twentieth century colonial life in India. Rosalind’s family, as was the practice with the English, mingled with their own kind in their clubs. “There were always complicated preparations for these occasions. Even in the hot days of an Indian summer Mother had me put on long silk stockings, a garter belt, and a slip that clung to my body like a leech. The collar of my dress chafed my neck, and by the time I had dressed I was damp with perspiration. For once Mother seemed not to mind the heat, and in her flowered voile dress and her hat that bloomed a silk rose, she looked like a bouquet.”
Whelan deftly shows the different attitudes prevalent among the English through her characters. Rosalind’s father, an authoritative and stern figure, regards the English culture as superior. Mrs. Blodget, the girl’s chaperone, champions Indian civilization and says that India had great cities when the British wore animal skins.
Whelan weaves Mahatma Gandhi, Sarojini Naidu and the Indian National Congress into the story, enlightening readers about the independence movement. Rosalind angers her father by listening to Gandhi’s speech and though she explains that Gandhi is against violence her father still abhors him. It is the final straw for the Major and he arranges for Mrs. Blodget to take her to England, where she is to live with her two maternal aunts. The two aunts’ differing personalities add much to the interest of Rosalind’s narrative. “Aunt Louise nearly suffocated me with her warm embrace. Aunt Ethyl was cautious in her handling of me, so that her greeting was more avoidance than welcome.”
Small Acts of Amazing Courage also has a bit of romance, one of the hallmarks of a coming-of-age young adult novel. Whelan keeps the love interest innocent. There is also something contemporary about the protagonist’s alluring voice though it stays true to her era.
Occasionally, the heroine’s daring acts seem far-fetched, and the plot, comprising a string of incidents, fails to elevate the book to its full potential. Still, the novel inspires kindness and bravery in the face of obstacles and reminds the reader that these values don’t just transform individuals, they make the world a better place. Whelan pays India a tribute in her last sentence when she writes about the warm spirit of the country.
Tara Menon is a freelance writer based in Lexington, Massachusetts. Her fiction, poetry, and book reviews have been published in many magazines.