A young adult novel about sex trafficking in India and Nepal? And one that doesn't completely depress us or misrepresent the reality of modern day slavery?
You win, Patricia McCormick—you win. This is literary magic at work.
In Sold, Lakshmi has a hard life on a mountaintop in Nepal—her family's rice paddy is at the mercy of the weather, and her stepfather gambles away what little money they have. For the family to survive, her stepfather tells Lakshmi that she is going to the city to work as a maid—in actuality, though, he has sold her into prostitution.
When Lakshmi journeys from her home in Nepal to a brothel in India and her new reality sets in, she sinks into despair. Yet the friendships that develop and the kindnesses she experiences keep Lakshmi tethered to her hope of freedom. It's a really intense journey for her… and for us.
As if the ferocity of Lakshmi's hope wasn't spectacular enough in its own right, the entire novel is written as a series of vignettes, some of which are pure poetry. How could something so awful be written so beautifully? Probably because McCormick did a ton of research to write with authenticity. She traveled to Nepal and India, she explored the red-light districts, she talked to human trafficking survivors—theworks. And her efforts paid off. She knows how to find just the write words, time and again.
In fact, Sold (which was published in 2006) is so compelling and well written that it was a National Book Award Finalist, it won the Quill Award, and it was named an ALA Top Ten Best Book for Young Adults, all in 2007.
So prepare yourself for a heartbreakingly believable tale of naiveté, betrayal, loss of innocence, and hope. And prepare to be so outraged at Lakshmi's story that you close the book with the urge to do something. Which is kind of McCormick's purpose in the first place.
Why Should I Care?
If you think that slavery in the U.S. ended with the Emancipation Proclamation (you know, the thing Prez Lincoln wrote), you've got another thing coming. Human trafficking (which includes both sex and labor trafficking) is modern-day slavery, and it's estimated that over a million people are trafficked into slavery each year—but it's hard to know for sure how many people are trafficked because once they enter slavery, they pretty much disappear.
So when Patricia McCormick writes a novel about human trafficking for young adults, it's kind of a big deal. She's shining a light on a global issue with countless victims who are mostly invisible, and she's writing for readers who are actually about Lakshmi's age.
Plus the story's written in first person. The confusion Lakshmi experiences as she's manipulated into the brothel, the hurt she endures, the betrayals, and even the compassion she receives… we feel what she feels. We see what she sees. We suffer what she suffers. And we recognize that her story doesn't end when the book does. Instead we're left wondering: what happens to Lakshmi after her life in the brothel? Where's the rest of her story?
And even though the story might be the saddest thing you ever read, it's not. There's laughter and joy and hope woven into the tragedy that is Lakshmi's life. Indeed, McCormick has created a space where writers can introduce and explore global issues like human trafficking, poverty, and gender inequalities in nuanced and sophisticated ways. And she so in a way that is both remarkably accessible and never talks down to her adolescent readers.
Sold isn't a close-the-cover-dust-off-your-hands kind of book. This is a story that sticks with us whether we like it or not and becomes even more meaningful as we learn that Lakshmi's character is based on real experiences of other women who have survived sex trafficking. This is a story that causes us to consider ways we can help victims of human trafficking. Even though it's hard to walk side-by-side with Lakshmi on her journey, it's worth it in the end.