Monday, February 27, 2017

The Orphan Keeper - Camron Wright

Summary: Based on a remarkable true story.


Seven-year-old Chellamuthu’s life is forever changed when he is kidnapped from his village in India, sold to a Christian orphanage, and then adopted by an unsuspecting couple in the United States. It takes months before the boy can speak enough English to tell his parents that he already has a family back in India. Horrified, they try their best to track down his Indian family, but all avenues lead to dead ends.

Meanwhile, they simply love him, change his name to Taj, enroll him in school, make him part of their family—and his story might have ended there had it not been for the pestering questions in his head: Who am I? Why was I taken? How do I get home?

More than a decade later, Taj meets Priya, a girl from southern India with surprising ties to his past. Is she the key to unveil the secrets of his childhood or is it too late? And if he does make it back to India, how will he find his family with so few clues? 

From the best-selling author of The Rent Collector, this is a deeply moving and gripping journey of discovering one’s self and the unbreakable family bonds that connect us forever. (Summary and image from goodreads.com. I was provided a copy in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: Have you ever thought about how Joseph of Egypt (you know, with the amazing technicolor dream coat, that one) felt as he sat in the pit and listened as his brothers—his family—sold him to slavers? We all know it turned out just fine in the end, but think of his despair. Of the panic. What about anger? Now, we all know Joseph ended up being pretty darn awesome, but how do you think it impacted him for the rest of his life?

What if he had been a kid? Does that betrayal ever heal, ever fully go away?

Chellamuthu’s life in India was perhaps not ideal by a Westerner’s standards, but he was loved. He was constantly engaged. He was desperately missed when he was kidnapped at eight years of age and sold to an orphanage—and he was nearly destroyed when he was told by the director of the orphanage that his father was the one who had sold him. In a matter of weeks, he was ripped from his new normal in the orphanage, put on a plane, and deposited in a cold land with new and strange customs, surrounded by people who don’t speak his language and who are apparently named “Mom” and “Dad”, and told to adapt. 

I’ve never thought about the ramifications that adoptions could have on older kids. This novel — while based on a true story, this has some elements of fiction to move it along and make the narrative flow — explores exactly that question. How does an international adoption affect the adoptee throughout life? How does it impact the bonding with the adoptive family? There’s a scene, told from Chellamuthu’s adoptive mother’s point of view, when Chellamuthu arrives from India at the airport. She envisions a little boy who will run to her, thank her in halting English for rescuing him, and they’ll all live happily ever after. What she gets is a terrified little boy who is overwhelmed — probably way more common and much less talked about. Further, even though there’s a jump of ten years, it’s clear that the circumstances of Chellamuthu’s adoption affected every aspect of his life. HIs relationship with his adoptive parents and siblings suffers, his relationships with girls is tenuous because he always feels like they’re dating the novelty and not the guy, and how do you decide what to do with your life when you’ve had that kind of upheaval?

Chellamuthu’s journey from Indian child to americanized—and then rediscovered Indian heritage—Taj is an amazing read. I couldn’t put the book down. Literally, I was in the middle of another book and couldn’t get back to it, I was too worried about Taj. His two families, both incredible, both so loving are families I want to know. The circumstances, coincidences, and miracles that came together to reunite Taj are incredible, even if they’ve been slightly dramatized for a book, wow. Doesn’t matter. 

Because this is a story based on real life, there are some unanswered questions. Taj never found out whether his father really sold him, or whether that was creative storytelling on the part of the orphanage director — a truly Machiavellian character when it comes to “saving” the children he’s chosen to help. Oh! (That’s another character I want to sit down with. Someone who truly believes he knows best and is doing what is right, and whether that means stealing, bribing, kidnapping, and deception, it’s all good, right?! Interesting fellow.)

This is one of those books that makes me want to travel, to start a humanitarian fund, to volunteer to do more and help more, and to go find the real Taj and hear the whole story. And meet his wife, because their love story may be one of my favorites I’ve read this year.

Rating: Five stars

For the Sensitive Reader: There is one scene where Chellamuthu’s father brands his feet for running away — it’s difficult to read, but integral to the story. Also, there’s an allusion to sexual abuse of one of the characters, but it’s a very broad allusion.

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