The Conch Bearer, byChitra Banerjee Divakaruni

            The
Conch Bearer
is the story of a young boy from
Calcutta, India, who finds himself on a quest out of legend.  His father has gone far away in search
of work, leaving Anand, his mother, and his sister Mira at home.  When his father inexplicably stops
sending money home, the family find themselves able only to afford a dingy
shack, his mother has to take work as a cook for a rich family, and Anand has
to quit school and go to work at a tea stall.  Despite these hardships, Anand never loses his compassion
for other unfortunates, and it is his charity towards an old man that leads to
him being chosen for an important mission.  A conch shell with magical healing powers has been stolen
from the Brotherhood of healers in the Silver Valley and Anand must help them
get it back.

            Anand
is forced to make many difficult decisions during his quest, to solve problems
and figure out a way forward, even with no one to help him.  It is an empowering story full of
suspense, danger, and small happy moments for the Anand and his company.  Though the Brotherhood—and thence
access to magic—is presented as a male, Divakaruni subverts that paradigm in
order to create a satisfying ending for all characters and readers. 

Divakaruni’s
characters, though they fall into some well-known types—the nurturing mother,
the mysterious but benevolent old man, the street-wise urchin—are allowed their
own personalities and are not bound by their identifiable characteristics.  Nissa, the orphan girl who accompanies
Anand, is more mercenary than he is, but is still allowed to make choices based
upon her experiences and observances and grows a great deal throughout the
story.  Anand himself makes some
important realizations about the nature of stories, fantasy, and what it means
to really achieve your dreams. 

The Conch Bearer is a
charming coming-of-age story that will delight young readers with its whimsical
invocation of classical stories and legends.  Children interested in magic or quest stories will be caught
up by Divakaruni’s obvious delight in her own tale and the characters she has
created, without feeling patronized by the lessons the story teaches.  Young readers interested in travel, or
stories about children who become heroes, will also find much to enjoy in this
novel. 

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