Title: SOLD by Patricia McCormick
Brief summary: In free verse, this novel explores the life of Lakshmi, a young girl sold into prostitution by her stepfather in Nepal.
Triggers: RAPE. A young girl is sold into prostitution. Each individual depiction of rape isn’t overly graphic- the novel is focused on emotional rather than physical reactions- but it’s definitely upsetting, and it doesn’t get less so the more times the protagonist is raped.
Why I Think It’s On the List: This is an issue that a lot of teens- and a lot of adults- like to think of as part of the past, when it’s actively happening today. The story feels like it’s part of another time, and then there are certain cultural markers (characters watching The Bold and the Beautiful, or a boy in a David Beckham shirt) that remind the reader that this is today. This story is visceral, and it’s a wake-up call to readers about how many terrible things out there are happening to women every day, as well as an implicit hope that education can help pull some of them out of these circumstances.
Additionally, Lakshmi’s journey from naïveté to bravery is complex and believable, and the story of a strong, honest young woman who refuses to let herself be defined by the sexual pleasure she can give to men is always good to read.
Wait, But… I’m concerned at how the book ends. Lakshmi develops a lot throughout the novel, and her personal growth arc works for me. But in order to escape her circumstances, a larger force needs to appear, and that comes in the form of an American who comes to rescue her, along with anyone who’s willing to be found- which ends up just being her, because everyone else is afraid. Yes, there are Indians with him (as well as other white men and women), and yes, some American characters aren’t helpful (a white American is one of many of her drunk paying customers), but I’m really uncomfortable with the only form of real help who’s identified as an individual being a white American, especially while so many Indian characters are abusive. It takes something away from a powerful story that paints a vivid picture of a culture when it ends with a white savior.
It’s compounded by the way that the rescuing character is referred to as “The American.” In sparsely-written free verse, each word packs more meaning, and a title like that carries with it the inherent baggage of the United States’ international policies and treatment of other nations.
The endnotes of this novel are the most fascinating part of the entire text for me. McCormick has clearly done a lot of research, including following the full path Lakshmi is taken on and interacting with people who’ve fought the child prostitution slave trade, as well as with who have gotten out of the quagmire. The endnotes really hammer the point of the novel home, and I can’t imagine not finding the young women she mentions, who patrol borders to protect young girls from fates that they once suffered, appealing and motivating. I want to know so much more of the story of these Indian women, who were in a terrible place and are now fighting to save others from their own fate.
Lakshmi’s narrative, by contrast, is the story of an Indian woman whose personal journey takes her to a place where she can accept help from an American. This is definitely an emotional journey, but it’s a different sort, and one which makes me think about something I was somewhat aware of while reading the book: this is a story about an Indian character living in India, written by an American author, being read by a predominantly American audience. (For the record, I am not trying to say that individuals should only write about their own cultures- I think it’s fantastic that this story is written by ANYONE, and an established American author can tell the story in a way that will get through to an audience that might not otherwise be accessible- but that doesn’t take away the inherent cultural baggage.) America being part of the story helps to make the reader part of the story, but it also globalizes it in a way that I’m not sure is beneficial to the text.
I didn’t mention this in the L’Engle post, although I should have, and I’ll make a separate post emphasizing this in a bit: this is criticism of the result of my reading of the book. I am not implying (or trying to imply) that the author intended any of the problems I mention, or that s/he holds this belief. In fact, in SOLD, I can see places where the author was working to combat these assumptions. This didn’t work for me, which doesn’t mean it wasn’t successful overall or that the book is a bad book or the author is a bad person, or even that the issue in question is (or should be) an issue for every reader. It also doesn’t mean my opinion will never change. The point of this blog is to discuss the issues that these books may raise, and this is what pinged as problematic with me personally. Your mileage, as always, may vary.
In short, while I applaud the feminist aims here, my post-colonial1 reading of this text makes me very uncomfortable. Overall, I think it’s an important book to be part of a collection, as long as certain caveats are kept in mind.
1 – Post-colonial theory responds to the need to give a voice to those who have been silenced. When countries are colonized, the colonizing power tends to institute a policy of using ITS language, ITS literature, ITS way of life. A post-colonial perspective interrogates why the story is coming from the oppressor or the outsider, rather than from the oppressed.x