Thursday, December 9, 2010

Review: Saraswati's Way

by Monika Schroder
Frances Foster Books | Farrar Straus Giroux (November 2010)
Ages 10-14

Some books remind me of movies that come out right around the end of the year, just in time to be fresh in the minds of Academy Award voters. I'm talking about the quiet movies, the ones with substance and staying power. Like their visual counterparts, these books earn their way through the emotional landscape--no manufactured sentimentality or cheap scenes that break down at the end of the day.

SARASWATI'S WAY, by Monika Schroder, is one of those books. Set in current day India, it has all the components of a heartrending plot: a boy has a dream to go to a good school, but he needs a tutor in order to compete for a scholarship, his family is poor and his father dies, forcing the boy to grapple with modern day indentured slavery from which he escapes, only to end up in the slums of Dehli where his dream slips farther and farther away; and yet, Schroder keenly shies away from milking the reader's emotions with the editorial narration of a superior outsider.

This isn't a "multicultural" book that helps to educate readers about other ways of life. It's a human and humane novel that levels the playing field for all readers.

Schroder deftly crafts a story that tells itself honestly and without frills. This is simply how life is. People die. Others are cruel. Circumstances turn good children into drug addicts, dealers and thieves. However, no one and no thing can steal or stifle a dream when it's as powerful as that of twelve-year old Akash.

He has a genius for numbers and patterns, and a real chance for a better life if only he can find the money to pay for a tutor, but Akash's real gift is his personal integrity and internal compass. Through the lens of a somewhat distant third person narration, Schroder brings us inside the mind of a boy struggling to understand why the gods—Ganesha, remover of obstacles, and Saraswati, wisdom and knowledge—are ignoring his pleas.

Thankfully, Schroder allows Akash to make mistakes—one of which leads to a big loss—and she does not ignore the realities of lecherous men who prey on boys, corrupt authorities, and the prevalence of poverty and crime. I'm not sure how she does it, though, but none of the seaminess is gratuitous. Like the storytelling itself, it's there to serve and not detract.

My only wish is that the resolution had taken longer to reach and been a bit less tidy. Even so, I was left wanting to follow Akash to the next chapter in his life. This is one book I would love to see a sequel to.

For a little taste of SARASWATI'S WAY, check out the book trailer:

Source: copy provided by author