Mitali Perkins has a godly talent for taking on big issues in unfamiliar settings and turning it all into absorbing, magical Middle Grade stories. I admired Bamboo People, and adored Secret Keeper, and I’m firmly in the love end of the like—>love scale for Tiger Boy (2015). This novel tackles profound moral dilemmas involving integrity, ambition, and sacrifice, all in Perkins’s trademark preach-free manner. And it’s set in the Sunderbans, an archipelago of islands that’s home to a unique mangrove forest, all of which straddles the southern part of Bangladesh and a small bit of eastern India.
The Sunderbans (“beautiful forest” in Bengali) is home to the Bengal tiger, whose population in recent years has dwindled so much that it’s considered an endangered species. The low numbers are partly due to deforestation and the rigours of a shared habitat with villagers, but mostly due to poaching for illegal trade in body parts and skin. Yep, we humans mostly suck.
Young Neel lives in near-poverty in an island village in the Sunderbans. He’d rather be swimming than studying for the scholarship exam for admission to a prestigious Calcutta boarding school. Oh, the English and Bangla exam portions are fine, but Neel (like a certain other young protagonist) has met his Waterloo in geometry. Moreover, he doesn’t want to go away to the city–he loves his family and his village. “The sights, sounds and smells of the Sunderbans were as much a part of him as his dark skin and curly black hair.” But his father, although a skilled carpenter, is short of work, and Neel’s scholarship (and his subsequent professional career) could be the ticket to a better life for his family.
Just as the headmaster catches Neel playing truant, big news comes their way–a tiger cub has escaped from the nature reserve nearby, and it’s hiding in their village! Neel is immediately aware of the danger–the mother will come in search of her cub. And there’s an additional menace–a rich city dweller named Gupta, who’s been buying up land in the forest, often forcibly evicting the occupants and wantonly cutting down rare Sundari trees, is searching for the cub too. Gupta is offering a large bounty for the tiger–and it’s not out of altruism.
Neel and his sister Rupa (who would have been deemed an awesome scholarship candidate if she were but a boy, you know?) set out in secret to search for the baby tiger. Since this book is called Tiger Boy, you know that Neel (aided by geometry, no less!) finds and rescues the cub. His family could sorely use the reward money for his mother’s medicine, but Neels knows he must return the cub to the forest rangers. Can he avoid getting his father into trouble, dodge Gupta and his evil henchmen, and hand the tiger over to the rangers — and pass that terrifying geometry exam?
Since this is an MG novel, everything works out, but not once does Perkins sacrifice nuance, and the ending features a hugely satisfying yet unforced tying-up of loose ends. I really relished the elegant plotting, and I love her characters. As always, they’re mostly helpful, good-hearted people doing the best they can with what they’ve been given, and if they behave less than well, it’s usually due to ignorance or duress, rather than spite. And yes, it’s hinted that greedy Gupta gets his comeuppance. The text is accompanied by lovely illustrations from Jamie Hogan.
Much incidental information about tigers, conservation and the Sunderbans has been gently infused into this fast-paced, gripping novel, and there’s also a substantial afterword that includes plenty of learning resources. Tiger Boy won the 2016 South Asia Book Award for Grades 5 and Under, as well as whole other bunch of prizes; color me unsurprized. Check out more about the book at http://www.tigerboy.org/.