Sold by Patricia McCormick

h1 November 15th, 2006 by jules

sold.gifIf anyone was paying attention to my most recent post, I kind of left you hanging with the bold statement that I’d just read the best book I’ve read all year. Here it is — Sold by Patricia McCormick. This is the most powerful and emotionally compelling book I’ve read in a long time. And I’m not alone in my admiration for this book knowing no bounds. This one is a National Book Award Finalist.

Sold, written in a series of free-verse vignettes, is the story of thirteen-year old Lakshmi, living in poverty in a hut in Nepal, who is sold into sexual slavery in the Calcutta slums. Innocently thinking that she will be working as a maid for a rich family, thus providing money for her family in order for them to have a tin roof and better clothes on their backs, she takes a long, disorienting journey into India with a shopkeeper, only to come to the grim realization that she has been sold by her own stepfather into prostitution. A detestable, odious woman, Mumtaz, runs the brothel, called The Happiness House, and tells Lakshmi that she will stay until she can pay off her family’s debt. It takes Lakshmi quite a long time to grasp the fact that Mumtaz will make sure this will never happen (go here and scroll down a bit to read “Mathematics,” an excerpt from the novel that captures Lakshmi’s first realization).

McCormick does wonders with contrasting the two worlds of Lakshmi’s simple life at home before being sold — playing with her friend; going to school; eyeing the boy arranged to become her husband; loving moments with her mother; wondering daily at the beautiful Himalayas in the mountain village where she lives; her fondness for Tali, her pet goat (granted, it’s not an easy life, and the family loses everything they have in a monsoon) — with her degrading, new life as a prostitute. When she first arrives, Lakshmi refuses to lie down for any man, and — as a result — is beaten and then starved into submission. She is also drugged and eventually, it goes without saying, raped. So, yes, it is difficult to read at times. But McCormick gives Lakshmi great hope in the form of the son of another prostitute who attends a school and sneaks Lakshmi a school book and begins to teach her some words. And then an even greater hope arrives in the form of an American, and Lakshmi must muster up all the courage left in her to change her situation. All the while, she fights to keep her sense of self — a notion with which many teens will be able to relate, no matter where they come from — while remembering her mother’s words, “simply to endure is to triumph.”

McCormick’s writing is evocative and penetrating, impressive on many levels. But I have to say that what stands out in this novel is the imagery she uses to bring Lakshmi’s world to life — from the sounds and sights and textures of home (her beloved black-and-white speckled goat, her mother brushing her hair by the light of an oil lamp) to her new world of lipstick and eyeliner and her “filmy dress.” During one of the book’s most poignant moments, Lakshmi buries her face in her bundle of clothes from home and realizes, “there was no hearth smoke in the folds of my skirt, no crisp Himalayan night air in my shawl,” smells she had used up until this time to keep her mind and heart firmly lodged in the home she was forced to leave. And then there’s this moment of biting imagery from “Punishment”: “It is a simple kitchen sound, the grinding of spices with a wooden pestle. Sometimes it means nothing more than spicy stew for supper. But sometimes it means that the cook is readying the hot chili punishment for one of us. And then it is a sound that turns even the hardest woman here into a whimpering child.” Lakshmi knows this means that “someone has crossed Mumtaz, that Mumtaz will smear chilies on a stick and put it inside the girl, and that all of us will be awake through the night, listening to the girl moan.” And, by far, the book’s most heart-wrenching moment, “Beyond Words,” in which Mumtaz is speaking to another prostitute, one whose two children live with her in the brothel:

Pushpa has been in bed for three days and nights, and now
Mumtaz is in our room. “If you don’t get out of bed and see
customers today,” she says, “you are out on the street.”

Pushpa nods, stands slowly, then sinks to her knees. She
kisses Mumtaz’s feet.

“Please,” she begs. “I’ll work tonight, I promise.”

Then she is seized by one of her coughing fits. She coughs
until tears run down her cheeks and she spits blood into a rag.

“Pshhht,” Mumtaz says. “You are of no use to me now! No
man wants to make love to walking death.”

“Have mercy,” Pushpa cries, holding her hands up in prayer.
“Think of my children.”

Mumtaz sneers at her, then all at once her eyes begin to
gleam like new rupee coins.

“There is something you could do,” Mumtaz says.

Pushpa looks up expectantly.

“Sell her to me.” She points to little Jeena, asleep in her
bedroll. “In a few years, when she is old enough, I can make
a lot of money with her.”

Pushpa seems not to understand.

“There are men who would pay dearly,” Mumtaz says, “to be
with a pure one. Men who think it will cure their disease.”

She puts a hand on Pushpa’s slender shoulder and smiles.

Then comes an unearthly sound. It is a wild sound, an animal
sound, a howling, mournful, raging cry, as the sickly woman
on the floor claws at the skirts of the fat woman standing
over her.

It is a sound beyond language.

And McCormick’s vivid imagery — at all times teeming with symbolism — abounds, my favorite moment being in the form of a yellow pencil. Harish — the son of Pushpa who shares his school book, complete with Sesame Street characters, with Lakshmi — gives her a yellow pencil one day, and it leaves her speechless: “I have been beaten here, locked away, violated a hundred times and a hundred times more. I have been starved and cheated, tricked and disgraced. How odd it is that I am undone by the simple kindness of a small boy with a yellow pencil.” In the vignette entitled “An Accidental Kindness,” a man arrives at the brothel who is gentle, who doesn’t just get his fill and then bolt from the room. Lakshmi finds herself wishing he’d return, writing: “His body warmed mine the way the Himalayan sun warms the soil. His skin was soft – like the velvet of Tali’s nose. And his contentment soaked through to me like an evening rain shower.”

This book is unforgettable. And every now and then, you read a book that picks you up by the collar and slaps you around a bit, making you realize how cushy your life is, even on your worst days — kinda like Angela’s Ashes will make you grateful for clean, running water, as my mother put it once. McCormick’s research for this novel involved a trip to Nepal and India to interview prostitutes and girls who have been rescued from the sex trade. In the book’s final Author’s Note, McCormick writes,
“{e}ach year, nearly 12,000 Nepali girls are sold by their families — intentionally or unwittingly — to a life of sexual slavery in the brothels of India. Worldwide, the U.S. State Department estimates that nearly half a million children are trafficked into the sex trade each year.” It’s a hard-hitting lesson for teens, but this well-crafted novel is well worth the difficult read that it can sometimes be. There is much hope here, and the writing is breathtaking. Not to be missed.

6 comments to “Sold by Patricia McCormick”

  1. wow, you are so much braver than i am. i was not even going to read this because it sounded so harsh. you may have changed my mind.

  2. […] read anything like this? I, personally, think the National Book Award folks chose well (though, as I made clear, I also really loved Patricia McCormick’s Sold). And my second question (ignore the fact that […]

  3. Although this book is classified as fiction, it is a spot on account of what these girls endure. I recommend you read this book.

  4. I read this book with my 9th graders- they could not put the book down!

  5. I really love the book Sold because it is upon a true story. Reading this book has encouraged me to read more.

  6. i love this book!!

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