Sunday, March 04, 2007

When the Sea Cries

If you stand listening at the edge of the sea long enough, you can hear the cry of injustice echoing from its depths.

That's the cry that rises out of Patricia McCormick's novel, Sold, a heart-breaking tale about 13- year-old Lakshmi who is sold into sexual slavery and taken from her Nepali village to work in a brothel in India.

Her story, which unfolds in brief poem-like vignettes, is a cry for justice in a deaf world. And it's thanks to McCormick's remarkable skills as a writer that the reader, rather than turn away from the painful truth of this village girl's life, is willing to enter the dark, prison-like brothel that becomes her home, and where for the next year, despite the horrors of her new life, she manages to hold onto the slenderest thread of her own humanity.

Lakshmi's fate is all the more painful because McCormick shows us the simple life that she led in her village before tragedy befell her. As the story opens, Lakshmi is a child playing hopscotch with Gita, her best friend, bestowing affection on her little black-and-white speckled goat, Tali, and sharing secret sweets with her mother, Ama.

But it isn't a perfect childhood. Her family is poor and food is scarce, especially after a drought dries up the spring that brings water to the village. And her step-father gambles away whatever savings the family has collected. Yet Lakshmi is happy in the way that children manage to find happiness even in poor circumstances.

As the noose of poverty tightens around the family, however, the need for money (and a solid tin roof to protect the family from the heavy monsoon rains) becomes more acute, and Lakshmi's step-father decides to send her away to work. Lakshmi, a devoted daughter, goes willingly with her new Auntie, unaware of the fate that awaits her. She thinks that she's going to work as a maid in a rich woman's house like her best friend, Gita.

But Auntie isn't to be trusted any more than Lakshmi's step-father or her new Uncle-Husband, the stranger who takes her over the border and, finally, to the brothel where her life turns into a hellish nightmare with no end. Locked in a room for days without food or water, Lakshmi refuses to "work" until the brothel's madame, Mumtaz, slips a drug into her drink so that Lakshmi can no longer resist the men who force themselves upon her.

Each day takes Lakshmi further from her memories of childhood and her village and the innocent girl who once played with a goat in the clear mountain air. Each day that she spends in her room with bars on the window, a privy hole by her bed, and rats nibbling on the crusts of bread that she saves for breakfast, Lakshmi grows old beyond her years, knowing each night she must allow men to use her body... if she ever hopes to buy her freedom from Mumtaz.

But hope is like freedom ... a dream that she's not sure she can believe in:
This ache in my chest is a relentless thing, worse than any fever.
A fever is gone with a few of Mumtaz's white pills.
But this illness has had me in its grip for a week now.
This affliction--hope--is so cruel and stubborn, I believe it will kill me.
In the end, hope doesn't kill Lakshmi. It keeps her spirit--and soul--alive long enough for her to save herself... with the help of a shy, admiring boy who feels compassion for her as he wheels his tea caddy through the brothel every afternoon, and with the kind assistance of a well-meaning American.

In Sold, McCormick has written a searing, stirring account of one girl's tragedy, a girl brought to the edge of despair, only to be spared at the last moment from the agony of losing her sanity... and her soul.

What will become of Lakshmi once she escapes the brothel? Will her family welcome her return, assuming that she can find her way back to the village, or will they find her "fate" too shameful to deal with and shun her? And will Lakshmi, given the loss of her childhood and the memories of what she experienced, ever live a "normal" life again ?

We learn in the afterward that Lakshmi isn't alone in her fate. McCormick writes that "nearly 12,000 Nepali girls are sold by their families, intentionally or unwittingly, into a life of sexual slavery in the brothels of India."

With help, according to McCormick, some of these girls are rescued by aid workers who provide them with medical care and job training.

Perhaps that's what will happen to Lakshmi now that she's free. Perhaps she, too, can become one of the girls who are reintegrated into society.

As long as such injustice exists in the world, though, the sea will cry out in protest.

And sometimes that cry of protest will find a writer with the heart and soul of a Patricia McCormick, a writer who has shaped that cry into a story that magnifies an innocent girl's plea for help a thousand-fold... so that the world might wake up and listen.

For more about Patricia McCormick and her work, visit her website:

For interviews with McCormick, visit these sites:

1 comment:

Jack said...

I admire Patty's courage in going to India and Nepal to research her story, which probably added immensely to her writing. I'm anxious to see more of her use of verse to frame this crushing story.