Title: Neela, Victory Song (Girls of Many Lands series)
Author: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Publisher: American Girl
Specs: 185 pages for the story, plus a section entitled “India: Then and Now” with a glossary of Bengal terms and vocabulary and an Author’s Note about her motivation and resources for writing this story.
Diverse Elements: Written by a female Indian author featuring a female protagonist who joins the struggle against imperialistic white rule.
Summary: 12-year-old Neela lives in a small Bengal village in the 1930s. At her older sister’s wedding, she comes face-to-face with freedom fighters who declare the time for India’s independence from Britain is long past due and ask Neela’s father to join them. Neela’s father does not agree with using violence and declines their offer but seems pensive. The baoul, a traveling minstrel, voices his support for the independence movement and is cast out of the village by the village governor. Neela witnesses all this and begins to dream about the possibility of becoming a freedom fighter herself instead of worrying about her dowry and embroidering skills, which she sees as unfair to the women and girls of India. Her father hears of Gandhi’s nonviolence and civil disobedience marches/strategies and decides to travel to Calcutta to learn more and possibly join the movement. He tells Neela the truth about where he’s going and warns her that her mother thinks he is going to buy goods and not to tell her otherwise unless he doesn’t return as planned. While he is away, Neela discovers a hurt freedom fighter in the barn, a 16 year old boy named Samar. They become friends as she nurses him back to health, and she learns he is from a prominent Calcutta family that supports the British, information that she uses to her advantage when her father does not return. She leaves a note for her mother who has agreed to an engagement for Neela, and goes to Calcutta to find her father.
What I Liked: The story is well-written and flows smoothly. It is a quick read, being written for ages 9-12, but isn’t reductionist. It explores issues of village life, gender equality, apathy, and reactions to oppression. The characters are entertaining and true-to-life, and Neela herself is complex, brave, and imaginative.
What I Didn’t Like: Only one thing–when Neela’s father gives her this secret to carry about where he’s going. Neela being only 12 years old bothers me. I understand that it added to the plot and conflict of the story, but having worked with this age group quite extensively, I’ve seen the devastating effects of children being told to keep secrets from the other parent or shouldering the burden of knowledge on their own. I would have hope for a different way for Neela to learn of her father’s plans, like overhearing a conversation or finding a letter or…just something more responsible than, “Don’t tell your mom, but I’m going into a dangerous situation and if I don’t come back, THEN you can mom. Love you.”
What I Loved: Neela goes to Calcutta expecting the rich and prominent family of Samar to be villains, but they treat her well and she is exposed to the idea that all people are complex. She also is forced to examine opposite points of view about getting Britain out of India–violence or civil disobedience? And of course, I love seeing a well-written book that features strong girls as protagonists. I think American Girl has always been so good about supporting women in literature, and while the offerings of American Girl were limited to white girls in America (when I was reading them, back in the 90s), it’s been great to see American Girl expand to featuring women of color and other lands, written by women of color and “other lands,” which in my mind showcases the diversity and culture richness that is America, if we let it.
Note: I’ve always been fascinated by India and its culture, though my formal education about it has been sparse. This book helped to reveal once more the ignorance of my cultural education as a child and the whitewashed revision of history that so many children are subjected to. While in school, we always were taught of the glory of the British empire, “The sun never sets on the British empire,” blah blah blah. In short, we learned that imperialism is grand! Never did we discuss the devastation of imperialism on the cultures that were victims to this mindset, or that while WWII raged in Europe, an entire subcontinent was fighting for its rights. It wasn’t until college that I learned the effects of imperialism were less-than-awesome. Books such as Neela, Victory Song are so important to teaching children to honor their own culture, whatever it may be, without trampling on the rights of others. Brava, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, for showing me this lesson once more.