By Gloria Whelan HarperCollins 192 pp., $15.95
A book that wins the National Book Award garners high expectations, which is problematic for the recent young-adult winner, "Homeless Bird." Gloria Whelan's novel of a doomed but resourceful young Indian woman lacks richness and originality, but the story is emotionally compelling.
At 13, Koly faces a big change: She will marry a boy she has never met and go to live with his family. Koly stitches a dowry quilt, capturing images of her mother in a green sari, father on his bicycle, brothers playing soccer, the tamarind tree, the cow, and the courtyard well. This quilt, a photograph, and her mother's silver earrings will be her only possessions and the only reminders of the home and family she may never see again.
The only blessings she finds in her new marriage are a new sister to confide in, a large rat she tames, and a father-in-law who teaches her to read.
It's hard to imagine that someone could be as cruel as Sass, her new mother-in-law, or that her lot in life could get much worse. But when her sickly young husband dies, Sass abandons Koly in a city teeming with widows, and Koly becomes the homeless bird of her favorite poem.
In a happily-ever-after ending, Koly manages to piece together a life that defies the hopeless aspects of her culture's traditions. But if Whelan had included more authentic details about modern-day India, readers would have gained more than a stereotypical look at a young Indian girl's life. The view here seems more influenced by National Geographic than real contact with the country.
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