Title: Saraswati's Way
Author: Monika Schroeder
Publisher: Frances Foster Books, 2010
Akash is 12 years old, living with his extended family in their Indian village, and dreams of learning more about math and numbers. He is excellent with figures and can mentally solve many math problems—bu he has learned all his teacher has to offer, and his family cannot afford to get him a tutor or send him on to a higher level of school. But then tragedy strikes, and he is forced to work off his family's debt in a quarry. He escapes, but only to become a street child in Delhi, where he starts to understand how hopeless his situation seems. Can he resist the temptations of making quick money through unseemly means, or will he be able to be patient and find the right way to knowledge?
This is a quick read, but full of descriptions of place, Indian culture, street life and Hinduism. I learned a bit about the Hindu religion and how its practitioners worship, at least in the part of India Akash is from, and I learned a lot about the Indian culture, namely life in a traditional household and life for children on the street. It can be gritty, and children have to resort to desperate measures to survive.
Yet Schroeder gives us this picture in a more kid-friendly way. Despite the horror of street life, the phrasing is simple and gentle enough for younger readers to understand it without having nightmares. Her writing is very to the point and frank.
I did have a few problems while I was reading. Some paragraphs are far too long; I think the text could use a bit more editing and breaks in the structure when it comes to that. I found an entire chapter that only had one paragraph. There were also parts of dialogue where there wasn't a new paragraph when a new character spoke, which confused me. And speaking of dialogue, some of it was very stilted and seemed unrealistic, especially a scene with a doctor toward the end of the book. I found the writing tended to be a bit choppy, but for some reason this worked for the most part.
One other thing that confused me was the unfamiliar religious practices described. At one point there is a festival going on and Akash's family is in mourning—certain things happen, and I couldn't tell if it was because of the festival or the mourning period. I could get what was happening most of the time, and eventually I figured out what was going on after I got confused, but I struggled a bit occasionally.
I was sucked into the story, especially once Akash started to be exposed to the darker side of street living. I got worked up at the injustices, worried about the young hero of the story, and was saddened at the circumstances. There are drugs and perverts in the world, and Akash is forced to find this out. Luckily he (somehow) manages to find friends pretty quickly and easily, so he's rarely ever truly alone.
After the novel ends, there is an author's note that explains about street children in India, Vedic math, and the Hindu gods mentioned in the text—I recommend reading this. There's also a glossary for the Indian terms used throughout the book.
Saraswati's Way tells the ultimately hopeful story of a boy who ends up on the street and tries to survive, while always pursuing his goal of getting a good education. Though there were some issues for me, I think this would be a good introduction to Indian custom and religion for a younger reader, plus it gives some nifty math tricks.
Disclosure: The author sent me a copy of this book for review.