Controversial novel portrays horrors of child slavery

Sold book review

Naloni Smith, Staff Writer

Did you know that each year, nearly 12,000 Nepali girls are intentionally or unwittingly sold by their families into a life of sexual slavery? Worldwide, nearly half a million children are being trafficked into slavery, and that is the story author Patricia McCormick depicts in her novel Sold.

The main character, Lakshmi is an underprivileged 13-year-old girl who lives with her family in a small village located in Nepal. Though Lakshmi is poor, she tries her best to keep that fact from overshadowing the simple joys of life. For instance, she adores her garden of cucumbers and goat, Talia. However, the worst is yet to come. Lakshmi’s tenuous stability washes away when a storm destroys her family’s crops and their livelihood. Lakshmi’s stepfather forces Lakshmi to take a job in the city to help support her family. Her stepfather introduces her to a glamorous stranger she is told to call “Auntie Bilma.” Lakshmi willingly joins her new “auntie” on their journey to the city, believing this woman is only trying to help support her family. It isn’t long before Lakshmi discovers she has been sold for the same price as a water buffalo…

Miles from her promised destination, a city rumored to have glittering roofs of gold, Lakshmi arrives at an impoverished place, where she notices the hovels covered with paper and countless souls with no shelter at all. Her initial reaction to this desolate, foreign place is complete horror, “I am afraid of this city where the lying-down people look like the dead. And the standing-up ones, like the walking dead.” Lakshmi is quickly taken to a brothel occupied by other girls and a few families. She is told she is trapped in the brothel until she can pay off her family’s debt. Gradually, Lakshmi forms friendships that serve as her only solace in this new, terrifying reality.

Sold is a novel written in a style similar to free-verse poetry from Lakshmi’s first-person perspective. It’s like reading Lakshmi’s stream of impressions and thoughts, which will only bring you closer to her character as the story develops. At moments, you’ll catch yourself grappling with questions of what you’d do if you were in Lakshmi’s position, and every time you think you may have an answer, the circumstances change to reveal how utterly powerless children placed in this situation really are. This is only part of what’s profound and ingenious about this novel.

Patricia McCormick has structured a captivating story that balances the most dreadful tendencies of humankind with the redeeming aspects of one young girl’s courage and resiliency. At the start, Lakshmi is alone. Her trust in others had been violated to the extent that simple acts of kindness are the last things she expects in this new world. One memorable friend Lakshmi becomes rather close with is the son of one of the prostitutes. Each day, after his school sessions, he comes home and teaches Lakshmi new words from the Hindi and English languages. Every time Lakshmi sees the boy he asks, “How are you?” to which she replies “I’m fine, how are you?” She loves the way a new language feels in her mouth, even if her words are not true.

In addition to an authentically humanistic plot, the author does a splendid job exposing the economic realities contributing to the exploitation of women in developing countries like India. Women who are taken to brothels share the problem of “debt” to the cruel headmistress, Mumtaz. Like Lakshmi, many girls are told they were there to work off the debt of their family, and so they do. No matter how diverse their backgrounds, their stories share the common factors of personal tragedy and economic hardship. One of the prostitutes is bound to Mumtaz after the death of her husband, the sole wage earner in the family. If she didn’t work, she and her children would starve on the streets. In an impoverished area with no access to education or opportunities for women, prostitution is the only option. Lakshmi’s story sheds a light on a global crisis that most of us are unaware of.

Though McCormick sensitively develops an insightful story, she has received criticism that as a western white woman, it was not appropriate for her to write from the perspective of an impoverished Nepali girl. In multiple interviews, McCormick speaks to that concern and describes the time she took to walk the roads commonly used for transporting women into slavery. She says she was even graced by the chance to hear women tell their stories first-hand over the month she spent interviewing victims of human slavery. The author’s stated mission for this novel was to raise awareness regarding the harsh realities of human trafficking, and that’s exactly what she accomplished.

Overall, Sold is an emotionally compelling novel due to McCormick’s sensitive, detailed writing. I highly recommend this book to all of those concerned with social injustice, but for those who aren’t, you should take the time to read it anyway. This story is definitely worthwhile, and in the end, you are likely to experience a change of heart. You’ll easily fall in love with Lakshmi’s strength and intelligence, and become tearful when her story comes to a close. Yet, the real question remains with us long after Lakshmi’s story ends. Will girls like her ever find a way out?