I can’t remember when I was last as frustrated with a book as with Gloria Whelan’s Small Acts of Amazing Courage (2011), an MG novel set in British-ruled India. I don’t normally post negative blog reviews (what’s the point?), but this book is from Simon & Schuster, and Whelan is a well-established author who won the National Book Award for an earlier MG novel (also set in India). THESE PEOPLE SHOULD HAVE KNOWN BETTER.
It’s 1918, and fifteen-year-old Rosalind, whose father is a Major in the British Army, lives in a small Indian town. Rosalind constantly ventures beyond what’s expected of her, much to her parents’ chagrin–she befriends the locals, visits bazaars, and wonders aloud why India should be ruled by Britain. When her father discovers that Rosalind snuck away to attend a talk by Gandhi, he packs her off to England to live with her aunts. But here, as in India, Rosalind follows the dictates of her conscience rather than convention, with profound consequences.
The plot has rich potential, but oh, this book is written with little regard for either accuracy or tone. Let’s start with accuracy. Rosalind’s friend Isha, daughter of Amina, is married to Aziz. These names cue that the family is Muslim; yet Whelan has Isha wear vermillion in the part in her hair and a red tikka (translated in the novel as “dot”) on her forehead–both strictly Hindu marriage markers. This faux-pas is the equivalent of a Calvinist wearing a kippah. Isha addresses her father as “Baap”, as in “Baap says he beats his servants”; this is idiomatically ludicrous. Isha is “singing her favorite raga, a song about two lovers who were separated by cruel parents.” A raga is a series of musical notes; a song is set in a raga. There’s a whole host of lesser but equally irritating inaccuracies–for instance, Whelan talks about Rosalind’s father’s cyce (groom); that’s syce to me and you and Merriam-Webster. Gopal is spelled Gopel… why?
When writing from the outside, authors need to tread very carefully and examine the privileges and attitudes they inject (often unconsciously) into their work. “How can kindness get you into so much trouble?” asks the blurb. Sure, Rosalind is kind–in a white-woman-saving the wretched natives fashion, rescuing a (low-caste, of course) baby sold to a beggar-master. The Indian characters are mostly denied agency, and presented as fearful and caste-oppressed. The usual clichés of Orientalist writing abound–there’s the faithful native retainer who calls Rosalind “Missy Sahib”, and who is comically devoted to his British masters, with his turban toppling off (ha ha!) in his zeal to clean his master’s house. There’s the enlightened British lady who’s set up an orphanage for Indian children, and her progressive son who develops a sympathetic friendship with Rosalind.
In England, Rosalind meets a young Indian schoolboy Ravi, whose main function is to educate the white characters in this book. Ravi, perpetually hungry because his boarding school fare consists mainly of beef, helpfully explains to Rosalind, “It is the sacred cow I cannot touch.” (One would assume that Rosalind, who has lived in India longer than Ravi, knew this already?) The dialogue featuring Ravi is didactic–and terribly heavy-handed.
[Ravi:] “My father is a solicitor, Miss Hartley [Rosalind’s aunt]. He helped Gandhiji in his fight against the Rowlatt Act.”
“What is the Rowlatt Act?”
“It is a very unfair thing done by the British, Miss Hartley. It says you can imprison someone without a trial.”
“Your father is against the British Government!”
“No, ma’am. We Indians have all learned the blessings given to us by the British…I can still recite them: public health, law and order, schools, roads, irrigation works, bridges, telegraphs, and railways. But in the Rowlatt Act and in other things the British gave us injustice as well.”
Small Acts… often feels like an educational text perfunctorily disguised as a novel. Children are quick to spot this sort of thing, and I know I’d feel cheated if I were an MG reader. Rosalind is interesting, but the other characters feel rather flat, and the frequent info-dumps don’t help. There are dozens of writers (not just South Asian) who speak with power and authority about the Indian subcontinent, and who take the trouble to do their research; why on earth would anyone choose this book?
The more charitable reader might feel that Whelan writes with curious naiveté, expecting to carry her reader along despite the glaring issues raised by her narrative, but I’m so tired of making excuses for this sort of writing. Frankly, dear readers, Whelan and her editor don’t give a damn.