Thirteen-year-old Lakshmi lives in Nepal with her hard-working mother, gambling-addicted father and a brother who’s too little yet to have developed a character. They’re poor, even by Nepalese standards, which makes them impoverished by first-world nation standards, but Lakshmi does not feel so. This is all she knows, so she is happy in her world, and wealth to her means a tin roof rather than the thatch her home currently has and an electric light to drive away the darkness in her house at night. She is on the cusp of adulthood by Nepalese standards and so is putting away childish things for the concerns of a woman in her culture and community: considering marriage–she is already betrothed to a local boy–and raising cucumbers and a goat to augment the family income in the garden. She is attending school, and is the best student despite lacking pencils and paper.
As her father’s gambling and therefore his debts grow larger and more pressing, he sells Lakshmi; she believes that she will work as a maid in a wealthy home, and is confused when the woman purchasing her complains that she has no hips. What does that matter to someone who employs a domestic servant? Readers with a sense of women’s problems in other countries will know by now where Lakshmi is going, but she is is nothing but shocked when she arrives at her destination–a house of girls–and realizes the true nature of the business in which she’s participating. There are sweet moments, when she befriends some of the girls in the house and the tea boy, who comes around with cups of prepared tea, but overall life is unspeakable, and the methods of calculating her earnings against her expenses are rigged worse than a gambling house’s odds; there is no way she can earn her freedom. Only the mistress of the house will earn a living; all the girls may expect is to be used until they are worn out, ill and old before their time.
In the end, she reaches out to an American who offered her help, despite what others have told her that this is only a trick; the Americans will strip her and force her to walk naked through the street to be ridiculed.
The author’s free-verse style in this book both conceals and heightens the horror of what’s happening to Lakshmi; at no point does McCormick use the terms “prostitute” or sex-worker, though no amount of metaphor can conceal what’s happening. This is fiction in that the author’s made up all the characters. The problem itself is quite real, and one likely to be unimaginable to many of the teenagers likely to be reading the book; while there are scams in the United States as well as Nepal, most kids won’t be forced to sell themselves physically as a result of such a job. Although I wouldn’t hesitate to suggest it to younger kids who’re both mature enough to handle the issues raised in the book and whose reading is above grade level, although for cataloging purposes, I’d put this in the teen section of a library’s collection (or ruefully in the adult collection for the most conservative communities) as the central theme of prostitution might be considered too mature for pre-teens.