Small Acts of Amazing Courage by Gloria Whelan

Cybils nominee: Middle Grade Fiction. Nominated by Rebecca Herman.

Small Acts of Amazing Courage takes place in a river town in southeastern India. It is 1919 and World War I has been over for six months. During the war, more than a million Indian men fought alongside the British. Rosalind’s father led a battalion of Indian soldiers, the Gurkha Rifles. Now that the war is over, the British in India have returned to their comfortable lives of servants and clubs. ~Author’s Note by Gloria Whelan

Rosalind is a well-written character. She’s fifteen years old and just independent enough to get into trouble, which of course is necessary for a good story, and yet she still respects her parents and wants to please them. Rosalind has ideas and adventures and, well, spunk.

The setting of the book, India, is almost another character in the story. India is portrayed as the anti-Britain: colorful, messy, dangerous, and full of life, while England is drab, gray, safe, and lifeless. Rosalind’s older brother died in England when he was sent there to go to school, but India is the place where Rosalind’s aunt begins to come alive for the first time in her repressed and circumscribed life.

From my reading of history, Ms. Whelan over-simplifies the politics and cultural encounters of the time period. Gandhi and his followers are, of course, the good guys, and anyone who questions the wisdom of Indian independence is a patronizing colonialist, overbearing and/or willfully ignorant. Rosalind’s father falls into this category, as do most of the British residents of the Raj, the British mandate in India.

And Hinduism is, as a matter of course, presented as an interesting and colorful set of stories and beliefs that enrich the lives of the Indian people and of those British people who are open-minded enough to listen. Multicultural PC aboundeth. Christianity is not mentioned, but it is implied that India is the best place, has the longest and wisest history, and worships the best gods of all. If only we could all just get along as they do in India! The only differences between Hindus and Muslims that are mentioned are related to dietary practice, and surely what we eat can’t be a huge obstacle to peace in an independent India.

But I nitpick, probably because I’ve been reading a lot about the time period. The book tells a good story in which personal freedom and national freedom are paralleled. If the narrative features political changes that are taking place in India at the time without including some of the problems that were inherent in those political changes, well, the book isn’t about the conflict between Hindus and Muslims. Nor is it about the poverty in India that is a direct result of some of the religious practices and beliefs of Hinduism. The story does include an episode that demonstrates the evils of the caste system and its effect on the Dalits of the time. And that little episode is left, without preaching, to speak for itself.

So, I leave the book to speak for itself. I enjoyed the story, but I also knew that there was more to be known and written about India and its culture and its independence movement than could be contained in this small book.

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