Long long ago, on a splendid blog far far away, I promised I’d join Book Riot’s 2019 Read Harder challenge. Read Harder aims to get us out of our reading bubble and boldly explore strange new worlds; for me, that might be a novel about war, or prescriptive non-fiction on becoming rich, or a book about religion…I’ve discovered that the trick is to use what you like as a springboard for the new stuff. I will never, never, never warm to chick lit or pop philosophy or macho heroes, but I’d certainly look for an #ownvoices book set in Oceania, and I might just give a book of manga a shot.
I began with the first challenge in #ReadHarder, to read an epistolary novel or collection of letters. This was possibly the easiest challenge ever, for it gives me the chance to tell you about a book I LOVED. Padma Venkatraman’s middle-grade novel The Bridge Home is one of those books on behalf which I’d evangelize tirelessly. It’s beautiful and moving and deals with tough topics with exceptional finesse, and if you’re not profoundly stirred at the end of your read, well, I suggest therapy.
TBH is set in the city of Chennai, in southern India, and details the experiences of eleven-year-old Viji, who, along with her developmentally disabled sister Rukku, runs away from her abusive alcoholic father. Viji must find a home safe from predatory men, and figure out how the sisters can earn a living. The girls meet two other homeless children Muthu and Arul, who teach them to scavenge for sellable scraps in the city’s enormous garbage dump. The four children become fast friends and make a home together on an abandoned bridge, but it’s a precarious existence—a single piece of bad luck might upend everything.
Meticulously detailed settings, believable and likable characters, unsentimental portrayals of poverty and deprivation, and a healthy dose of humor all come together to make an eye-wateringly good read. And I loved that it’s set in (one of) my hometowns–Chennai!
And yes, TBH is an epistolary novel–it’s written in the form of letters from Viji to Rukku. This book was published in Feb. 2019, and I’ll bet one of my kidneys it’ll pick up a bunch of awards, for diversity and for overall excellence, and hence I’m covered for task #22–to read a children’s or middle grade book (not YA) that has won a diversity award since 2009.
I loved this book so much that I interviewed the author for The Rumpus, and she had a lot of interesting things to say about poverty, India, and the intersection of stories and science. Here’s an excerpt:
The Rumpus: You lived in India when you were the same age as the characters in the novel. Did you know children like them? If you did, I think this sort of social interaction between classes/castes in India would have been quite unusual, especially back in the 1980s?
Padma Venkatraman: It was unusual. I was born into a wealthy Brahmin family, but my parents separated (which was highly unusual). After that, unlike any other South Asian American author I’ve met, I experienced economic hardship firsthand. But it was nothing like the dire poverty I saw around me.
Despite our fraught monetary situation, my mother volunteered to help at schools for children who had much less than we did. At one such school, I quickly became good friends with a boy called Nagabushan. I had a sort of childish crush on him—I really admired how deftly he could throw clay and shape a vase on his father’s wheel. Years later, I realized that he came from the Dalit community and would have been considered “untouchable.” Viji’s character is inspired by a friend who is Roma, who once sheltered in a graveyard and scrounged through trash, and asked if I’d write her story.
You can read the rest of the interview here.