Gloria Whelan, who won the National Book Award for Homeless Bird, a touching novel about a widowed Indian girl, is a children’s writer I have come to expect much from. Her novel, set in colonial India, Small Acts of Amazing Courage, featured a brazen English heroine called Rosalind. Whelan was unable to resist a sequel when she realized the story of Small Acts of Amazing Courage ended two years before the Prince of Wales visited Calcutta. In the first book, Rosalind attends a lecture by Mahatma Gandhi, which, along with her other defiant deeds, incenses her father (a Major in the British Army) to the point where he sends her to England to live with her two maternal aunts, Ethyl and Louise.
In the sequel, All My Noble Dreams and Then What Happens, Whelan dreams big ambitions for Rosalind—she gives her a crucial role during the Prince’s visit and makes her interact meaningfully with Lord Louis Mountbatten, the Prince of Wales, and even the King. The second novel allows readers already familiar with Rosalind to witness the continued blossoming of her boldness, and it embellishes the portraits of her father and aunts. In this book, the romantic interest with Max, a lieutenant in the British Army, becomes intriguing because there are other young men around Rosalind. Whelan makes the sequel easy to read and enjoyable even for those who haven’t read the precursor and gives them a taste for what went on by skillfully weaving in the information they missed.
The novel opens with a breakfast scene in which, except for the mother who joins them a little later, the members of Rosalind’s family are present—her father, herself, and her two aunts, Aunt Louise and Aunt Ethyl. Rosalind’s Gandhi-hating father is horrified to discover from the newspaper that the Congress Party has announced a hartal (strike). As an officer in the British army, he has to impose order when there are strikes. A conversation ensues in which opinions are bandied about, replaying real-life confabulations that must have happened at English families’ breakfast tables in India. The father’s attitude represents the outlook of many Englishmen during that era. He doesn’t consider Indians “ready for freedom.” Aunt Ethyl agrees with him and thinks Indians are like children who don’t deserve independence. Aunt Louise and her niece defend Indians. The friction between father and daughter at breakfast continues in later scenes, creating the kind of tension that aids the flow of the narrative. The mood at the breakfast table soon shifts, though, when the father slits open an envelope conveying the happy tidings that the Prince of Wales is coming to Calcutta and that his battalion will be part of the honor guard. Furthermore, the family receives an invitation to attend the festivities connected with the visit.
British schools and mission schools close due to the hartal, but Rosalind, who runs a school attended only by boys, is allowed to keep hers open because of her loyalty toward India.
She finds an innovative way to include a girl in the school’s lesson without alienating the boys. “My father would have been furious if he’d known of the school. First of all, I am helping out the strike, and then I am in the Indian section of town. Worst of all, he would think I was wasting great English literature on children whom he believed would grow up to have no better job than the carrying of jute bundles on their heads. But if all the while you were carrying the bundles you could say to yourself Shakespeare’s words, as my father does, the carrying would not be so heavy. What would really surprise Father is that I also teach great writers in the Indian language, like the poet Tagore, who is my favorite.”
Rosalind is friends with her ayah’s daughter, Isha, who is directly affected by the hartal. Her husband closed his stall to obey the National Congress Party’s strike directive. Later he will be arrested for attending a Congress meeting. Through Rosalind’s eyes we see Isha, “the greatest gift of all.” Isha taught her Hindi and it was at her home that she first ate poppadums and khichdi. We learn the ayah’s daughter was married at fifteen, had a miserable time initially with her mother-in-law, and that she has a baby boy and is expecting again. Isha has some bad news for Rosalind concerning a baby whose father sold him to a cruel man (he maimed children and made them beg for money) and whom the English girl saved by placing him in an orphanage. The father has a job and plans to take the boy back.
Rosalind is horrified because the child will have to face the disadvantages of being an untouchable if he is brought up by his parents. Readers glimpse what life is like for dalits, who have to live separately from the other Hindus.
Soon, Rosalind’s mother and aunts are swept up in the preparations for the parties in the prince’s honor. The girls at the English club are jealous and Rosalind fans their emotions, but she begins to realize that her excitement makes her like them whereas the prince’s visit has a different connotation for the Indian people. Max is now a journalist for Young India, a magazine started by Gandhi, and he entrusts her with an important mission—to ensure that a letter published in the journal gets to the Prince of Wales. Whelan entwines historical facts adeptly into the novel, making the authentic letter, actually published in Young India, central to the story. She imaginatively lets her invented characters interact with famous historical figures. At one point, Lord Louis Mountbatten actually pretends Rosalind is his girlfriend.
Readers will easily succumb to these authorial liberties and the situations her spunky heroine gets into that other girls can only dream about. The writer also includes a funny encounter between King George and Rosalind. The novel’s main plot is about whether the English girl can make a difference to the destiny of India by altering the attitude of either the Prince of Wales or King George. In order to accomplish this, she has to be brazen enough to get the letter delivered to the Prince of Wales. Her part in the fictional historical drama continues after she receives an invitation from England to present herself at King George’s court.
Gandhi’s real-life letter, which is addressed to every Englishman in India, is appended to the novel and serves as a fitting conclusion to the reader’s immersion in history. In the missive, he appeals to the conscious of the English and talks about the injustices perpetuated by British rule.
Though Whelan strives to give a balanced view of India, and even occasionally pays tribute to the country, she is not wholly successful in this endeavor. The setting of her story in colonial times and her choice of an English girl as a narrator, albeit an Indophile, tinges All My Noble Dreams and then What Happens with a slight colonial mentality. However, that said, it would be a difficult task for any writer to tell the kind of stories she does and not highlight the poverty, backwardness, caste divisions and other societal problems.
Whelan is a master storyteller and the two novels about Rosalind stand as imaginatively executed historical fictional. Children who’d like to learn about the oppression of British rule, historical figures (especially Mahatma Gandhi), important movements like hartal in early twentieth century India, and the lifestyle of a privileged British family will be able to familiarize themselves with these subjects through Small Acts of Amazing Courage and All My Noble Dreams And Then What Happens in a way that nonfiction cannot accomplish. Fiction nurtures empathy and when children enter the minds of writers’ characters they get to experience what it felt like to live in a different time and place and learn to understand people better. It is certainly true of the two Rosalind novels, which will bring the historical period alive and leave the reader with vivid impressions.
Tara Menon is a freelance writer based in Lexington, M. Her fiction, poetry, and book reviews have been published in many magazines.