November 07, 2011

No Ordinary Day

by Deborah Ellis
Groundwood Books
159 pp.
Ages 9-12

An ordinary day for Valli in Jharia, India would be collecting coal, living with her aunt's family, being hungry and being treated like nothing.  But her ordinary days are no more when she fortuitously learns that her aunt is not family and so Valli, having no reason to remain in Jharia, stows away in a coal truck.

Reaching Kolkata,  Valli is taken to Mrs. Mukerjee's where she is given food and shelter, until her burned but painless feet and white-patched skin are revealed.  Thrown out, Valli begins a new life on the streets, guided by the wisdom of an elderly man who encourages her to see herself as rich and to do something great.  So, scrounging for food and money, sleeping where she might, stealing as she needs, and sharing what she can, Valli persists in her "adventure" until meeting the kindly Dr. Indra.  Beyond identifying Valli's condition as Hansen's Disease (leprosy) and offering to treat her at her clinic, Dr. Indra provides the young girl with the regard and appreciation she deserves for her will to learn and to survive.

Though Deb Ellis has donated royalties from this book to "The Leprosy Mission", Valli's story is more than a vehicle for educating the reader about this disease (although I learned much).  It's a social treatise on the impact of poverty, gender inequality and disease in determining the futures of youth in countries such as India.  Valli's story, though heart-breaking, has a happy ending, which is probably not the outcome of most true stories such as this.  By depicting Valli's disease only tangentially to her story of survival, Ellis has made young readers aware of lives of tragedy, perhaps compelling them to learn more and to act, rather than to cause them despair.

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