dd107aa1054a93f14cfe8132a29f8ad1-2HOMELESS BIRD by Gloria Whelan. Harper Trophy, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, Inc., New York. 2000, First Harper Trophy edition, 2001. www.harperchildrens.com.

Thirteen-year old Koly, the daughter of a letter-writer and an embroiderer, is an-other mouth to feed. While her parents love her, they feel it is time to arrange a marriage that they hope will bring her a better life. It is learned too late that the young groom is terminally ill; it was not Koly who was wanted by the groom’s family but rather her dowry to pay for his medical expenses. The young girl, handed over to her new family, becomes more than another mouth to feed; she becomes a non-returnable burden.

Before she knows it, Koly is a 13-year-old, white-saried widow with no real place or purpose. She is treated as a slave, and her widow’s pension is snatched up by her mother-in-law. Embroidery, an art learned from her mother, sustains Koly as she tries to sort out what might become of her. When her father-in-law consents to teach her to read, she feels her life will take a turn for the better. He gives her a book of poetry by Rabindranath Tagore, and it is there she reads about a homeless bird, an image with which she identifies.

During a pilgrimage to the holy city of Vrindavan with her mother-in-law, Koly finds herself purposefully abandoned in a sea of widows who, like her, are rejected by their families. She is left with no money, no lodging, and no contacts, forcing her to live by her wits however she can and still retain her dignity. She realizes that the ability to read cannot be taken away from her just as her ability to embroider cannot. Eventually, her spirit, talents, and perseverance combine to take her to a shelter, to help her make friends, to find employment, and to discover a second chance at life.

Presented from young and courageous Koly’s point of view, the book is as romantic as a Hindi film and is written with love and sympathy, never passing judgment but always maintaining hope. Because of this, the reader understands that the hardships of the girl’s life are taken for granted by the society in which she lives. The reader then fully appreciates the successes Koly makes in meeting her challenges. Written for readers 10 years old and up, Homeless Bird illustrates a great strength of character and a wonderful discovery of self and self-worth. The author vividly paints the exotic settings, the diverse characters, and the tapestry of emotions to gift us with a story to cherish and to learn from.

Homeless Bird
is a National Book Award Winner, an ALA Notable Book, an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, a School Library Journal Best Book, an ALA Booklist’s Book for Youth Editor’s Choice, and an International Reading Association Notable Book for a Global Society. It comes complete with a glossary of Hindi words used in the book, which, while extremely helpful to non-Hindi speakers, should be placed before the body of the novel. An audio version is also available, read by actress Sarita Choudhary.–Jeanne E. Fredriksen

Jeanne E. Fredriksen reads and writes near Chicago, where she freelances as a copywriter and teaches Creative Writing to children through the Center for Gifted-National Louis University.

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