Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Sheth, Kashmira. Keeping Corner (3 1/2 out of 4 stars)
According to NJDOE data, there were 104,930, or 7.5% of the population of New Jersey students, listed under the “Asian or Pacific Islander” category in 2005-06, and this number may be higher now. I worry that, after 9/11, publishers are more conservative and xenophobic than ever; they will publish graphic violence, gratuitous sex, and foul language (read one Gossip Girl novel and you’ll know what I mean), but they will not explore Middle Eastern or Asian cultures for fear of backlash, or worse, slow sales. Lately, however, there have been more books published featuring Asian cultures (my recent favorite is Ying Chang Compestine’s Revolution is Not a Dinner Party), and Indian-American Kashmira Sheth’s Keeping Corner is a fine addition to this growing trend. Although the action takes place in the era of World War I, the story is timeless: a child’s struggle to overcome the limitations of her society and grow into a strong, healthy adult free from the restrictions of the previous generation.
Leela is so excited she can hardly contain herself. Not yet thirteen, she is soon to have her anu (the celebration that commemorates her move into the family home of her fiancé Ramanlal) and begin married life. Leela does not mind her arranged marriage, because she is very fond of her soon-to-be family. Her schooling will end with her anu, but she does not mind that either: “Like my classmates, I knew I wouldn’t go to school after my anu. Last year there were only five girls in my class” (8). Leela enjoys the finer things in life: pretty bangles, gold jewelry, colorful saris, and she looks forward to wearing beautiful things every day. However, Leela’s world is rocked when the unthinkable occurs: Ramanlal is bitten by a snake and dies. Now, without even her anu as a memory, Leela suddenly becomes a widow and must adhere to a strict and oppressive set of social rules: “Ba [Mom] and I had never talked about it, but there was a saying that a widow’s life was a living death” (53). As a Brahman of the early 20th Century, Leela must stay in the house for an entire year, a ritual known as keeping corner. She may not wear bright colors or any jewelry, and she must keep her head shaved. She may not ever marry again. Her life seems hopeless until she meets with her school principal, Saviben, who offers to tutor her and release her from the prison her small town of Jamlee will become for her: “‘If I stay here, the rest of my life will be like this year. Instead of keeping corner in our house, I’d be keeping corner in our town’” (199). The entire family must make some difficult decisions in order to do the right thing, whatever that may turn out to be.
The extensive use of Hindi/Indian words in this novel offers a glimpse into an exotic and colorful culture, even though reading so many foreign words makes the beginning of the novel a bit clunky. Colors and sounds play an important role in Keeping Corner; clothes, jewelry, and background are either vibrant with reds, golds, purples, and blues, or they are black or brown in mourning. Either the clink of jewelry, the sizzle of food cooking, and the braying of animals fills Leela’s life, or their absence empties it. Also, the novel’s backdrop of Mahatma Gandhi’s rise as a leader is an inspiration to both the characters and the reader, and there are many modern parallels to draw between India’s earlier struggles and the fight for self-determination being waged in many countries today. Also, Keeping Corner by Kashmira Sheth is a reminder of how far women have come in the world (I cannot imagine Leela’s generation voting, for instance, though they would today) and how far they still have to go to attain true equality. Finally, Hinduism is frequently misunderstood (my non-Indian students often ask if it’s a form of Islam), so a novel like this is always welcome because it is an enjoyable read and the students (and possibly you) will learn something as well.


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