Small Acts of Amazing Courage by Gloria Whelan is one of those books that re-cements my love and appreciation for good historical fiction. It is the story of fifteen year old Rosalind James, the child of a British military officer living in India in the year 1919. India has been her home her entire life; she has never so much as set foot on British soil proper (although to be sure, India is considered British soil!) Her father is away, fighting in World War I with the Indian soldiers under his command, while her mother convalesces at home with some unnamed heart ailment. Thus, the independent-minded Rosalind is able to go about her city unhindered with her best friend, Isha, the daughter of her ayah (nursemaid). Isha and Rosalind formed a close friendship because they were brought up together, an abnormal situation made possible due to Mrs. James’ tender heart over the death of her son, Rosalind’s older brother, while he was a young boy sent away to school in England. Mrs. James refuses to separate Isha from her mother while her mother works, and furthermore, she refuses to send Rosalind to England for schooling, which is certainly the expectation for families of any means living in India. This coalescing of circumstances is the perfect recipe for a coming-of-age story about a tough-minded girl who becomes a participant in a period great upheaval in British history: the push for Indian independence.
Many things happen to Rosalind, or rather, Rosalind makes many things happen in this story: she rescues an outcaste Indian baby from a life of slavery by purchasing him from an evil man; she doesn’t shrink from the very frightening and unpleasant task of becoming a nurse for some very sick people; she stands up to her domineering aunt, thereby giving her other aunt, who has always been dependent on mean Aunt Ethyl, the courage to take charge of her own life. Not the least of Rosalind’s escapades is becoming involved, however peripherally, with Gandhi’s nonviolent movement for Indian independence. In fact, everything Rosalind does in this story reflects this very movement; hence, the title of the story: Small Acts of Amazing Courage.
One thing that makes Gloria Whelan‘s writing so appealing is her ability to paint beautiful word pictures. This is a description of the river near which Rosalind lives:
The bazaar was on a bank that overlooked the river. The river is the most important thing about our town, and like all rivers in India that flow into or out of the holy Ganges River, it is sacred. Everywhere you looked on the river, something was happening. In the morning people came to wash and to brush their teeth with twigs. Later in the day women, with their saris tucked up out of the way, beat clothes with sticks to get the clothes clean. A steamer carrying mail sailed into port. The fishermen were out in their dhows, the patched sails billowing in the wind. There were prows with eyes painted on them, the better to see where they were going. Some families even made their home on boats, and I thought how much I would like that. A heron flew by, neck bent into an S shape, legs dragging. Wild dogs, their bones as much outside as inside their skinny bodies, lapped water. A young boy might ride his water buffalo right into the water and then proceed to give him a cooling bath. A procession of mourners would march down the ghat, each step a new cause for sorrowful cries. A fire would be built and the body burned. In a day or so, when all the burning was over, the relatives would return to gather the ashes and put them into the river. Sometimes the ashes from the funeral pyres blew into the bazaar, sifting down on me so that I felt the dead had become a part of me. I had seen the bodies of babies sent down the river on little rafts covered in marigold blossoms. The sick came to bathe for health. The river was like a great pair of arms taking everyone and everything in and giving comfort (13).
Is it any wonder that Rosalind loves her home in India?
Whelan is not only a master at description, she is also a master at characterization. When the character is sympathetic, like Rosalind or Isha, she is thoroughly sympathetic. When the character is one to be disliked, the effect is just as thorough:
. . . Aunt Ethyl came down the stairway, taking each step as if it had to be stamped on and killed. (188)
Perfect! While a story like this could easily fall into stereotypical characterization, with the British all bad and the Indian all good, Whelan never does this. Just like in real life, the characters are a mixed bag: Rosalind’s father loves her but can’t abide her “small acts of amazing courage.” The young people at the club where the British spend their time in India are mostly boorish, but Rosalind does meet one young man who is as eager for adventure and change as she.
My only criticism of the book, and it is a very small one, is that it comes to a very abrupt end, almost as if Whelan couldn’t surpass a certain page count and realized it almost too late. Generally a very evenly paced story, the ending hurries up and then comes to a screeching halt. This is certainly forgivable, given the loveliness and appeal of the story.
This book is listed as a Cybils nominee in the middle grade fiction category, but I think it would fit better in the young adult fiction category. Although it lacks the shock effect that most young adult fiction possesses, Rosalind is a teenager herself and this is a coming-of-age story. There is nothing in the story that would prevent me from handing it over to a mature younger child, but some cultural issues are peripherally touched on. For example, Isha is a fifteen year old bride whose mother-in-law is pressuring her to have a baby; by the end of the story, she is pregnant. I give this one a Highly, Highly Recommended for teenagers and adults. (Simon & Schuster, 2011)
Other books by Gloria Whelan I’ve reviewed:
Others’ reviews of Small Acts of Amazing Courage:
- Rebecca’s Book Blog (blogger who nominated this book for the Cybils)
- Becky’s Book Reviews
- The Thinking Mother