Title: Boys Without Names
Author(s): Kashmira Sheth
Genre: MG Contemporary, India, Child slavery
Page Count: 318
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
The Summary:For eleven-year-old Gopal and his family, life in their rural Indian village is over. We stay, we starve, his baba has warned. So they flee to the big city of Mumbai in hopes of finding work and a brighter future. Goal is eager to help support his struggling family until school starts, so when a stranger approaches him with the promise of a factor job, he jumps at the offer...
-Summary taken from 1st paragraph of Backcover
The Review: After reading Boys Without Names, I do believe that Kashmira Sheth is now firmly solidified as my new must-read MG author. She reminds me of Cynthia Kadohata, actually, and that is no small praise on my part because I practically worship the ground Kadohata walks on. Except, you know, Sheth would be a South Asian version, and her stories more… uplifting in tone. Less painful moments wherein I feel like my heart is being wrenched out of my chest as I stare desolately at the page with the text blurring as my eyes well up. I wouldn’t say happier because the two books I’ve read by Sheth (Keeping Corner and this book, respectively) deal with serious matters, but I can trust that unlike Kadohata’s works, no one is going to die, no one is going to have to be severed permanently from a loved one – in short, at the end of the Sheth novel, I probably won’t be a sobbing mess. If I’m crying, I’m crying tears of joy over the triumph of our beloved protagonists. They’re very similar in style (close 1st person narration, simple free-of-flowery-language and evocative lines that cut straight to the matter and grab you by the heart, but Kadohata has a stronger voice whereas Sheth’s narration is cleaner and almost lyrical in its simplicity) but diverge more drastically on their tone (Kadohata – sadder, Sheth – happier). I don’t prefer one style over the other, just that I find the comparison interesting and that now I know which MG author to go to if I want to read about a charming protagonist going through life’s hardships, but do not want to cry my eyes out.
Anyhow, on the actual novel itself, I am simply in love with Sheth’s writing style. It’s just so clean. When you take a sentence out of the context, they are almost deceptively dull and simplistic, a basic noun-and-verb sentence construction with the occasional adjective. But put her sentence structures together and then you see Sheth’s full mastery of the English language, how her words are carefully chosen to make the most out of what she wants to say. I felt like there was not a word used that was wasted, that her phrases were carefully weighed to produce the fullest effect possible. Everything was just so smooth and clean and flowed so nicely, you can’t help but sink into the story, time passing you by as you leaf your way through the pages.
And the cast was absolutely darling! I loved everyone I was supposed to love, and hated the ones I was supposed to hate. I was totally charmed by Gopal, our narrator, and his deep attachment with his family. He was so full of optimism and hardworking, and very sweet all around. All the family scenes with his concerns over his parents and his entertaining of his younger siblings charmed my socks off. I’m a total sucker for family scenes, and I really loved seeing the family love without, you know, the parental angst or sibling jealousy that dominates the YA novels I typically read. I really liked how Sheth took the time to show Gopal and his life in Mumbai before he was captured too, because it made all his longings for home that much more effective. Honestly, when we got to the point wherein Gopal got caught, I actually had to put down the pages because the very thought of Gopal being separated from his family crushed me. I knew it was coming, it implies so in the summary, but we readers become invested in Gopal and how important it was to be together with his family, and become simply crushed by this rude severing of family ties.
This is of course, not to say that the first half was at all filled with happy go-lucky times. Sheth is telling us a story of a family from a poor class, and the struggles and indignities they go through from being in want of money, the desperation as they run out of money to even make basic needs such as paying for their next meal, and even a place just to sleep. Sheth does not shy away from any of these depictions, but she also paints a loving family willing to stick it out together, so when the family separation occurs it is just that much more devastating.
The second half becomes darker in tone, with child slavery on top of poverty and homesickness, and gritty unhealthy living conditions. Sheth does not sugarcoat, nor does she excessively dishes out the horror for shock factor. Rather, with her clean and simple prose she states the conditions as is, an honesty in the writing that makes the viewing of our protagonist’s experience that much more heartbreaking. His frustrations, his despair, all of it evoked sympathy without it ever feeling like the author was purposely trying to extract these sympathetic emotions from us. The second half was also balanced out with glimpses of endurance and hope, as Gopal learns to survive, using his own character agency in a bad situation. The bonds he forms with the other boys he lives with form slowly and tenderly to make one of the most heartfelt and fragile friendships depicted in MG novels. Sheth breathes life into these boys, and makes them rounded characters that act and react to the protagonist. In other words, Sheth’s abilities in character development were a wonder to behold.
I also liked how the theme of storytelling grew and change in significance over the course of the story. First as a way to entertain himself and his twin siblings, then told as a way of hope as his family tries to make it in the city, and ultimately as a way to connect with the other boys he worked with, they were fun and heartfelt and enriched the novel in such a way that I can’t imagine this novel without Gopal’s stories inserted meaningfully throughout the narrative. The theme of storytelling is essential to this novel, they are not pieces of whimsical fictive tales by the fireside to be forgotten. Making stories-within-a-story is a great skill that not many authors can pull off, and I’m happy to say that Sheth outdone herself in making this storytelling method work completely to her advantage. By the end of the novel I was convinced Sheth is a master storytelling, and I am eagerly looking forward to any new projects Sheth undertakes in the future.
The Verdict: The journey Sheth takes us readers into Gopal’s experiences up to the grand finale is an arresting and riveting experience, with characters you’ll just fall in love for and a reading experience that will haunt you long after the story is over. I’d recommend this novel to everyone
Title and Cover Discussion: The title doesn’t quite resonate until we hit the second half, but it works and is a fine, memorable title. The simple silhouette cover design is serviceable and unique enough for it to not be mistaken for another cover. Neither the cover or title is flashy, but it is also different enough from the bland similar type covers that are in shelves in order to make it stand out.
Note: Kashmira Sheth has left many links and information on how one can help stop Child Labour and Child Slavery. Please consider checking out the following link if you wish to know more or take action against this social injustice: http://laborrights.org/stop-child-labor