Gloria Whelen’s Homeless Bird

Gloria Whelen’s Homeless Bird is a gripping novel that won the National Book Award for Young People’s Fiction in 2000. It centers around Koly, a 13-year old Indian girl who is about to enter an arranged marriage with a boy named Hari. Once the two marry, Hari dies from tuberculosis and Koly is left widowed at this young age. 

After Hari’s death, Koly’s father-in-law teaches Koly how to read and grows closer to her. However, quite reminiscent of a Cinderella story, Koly’s mother-in-law (sass) is less kind and welcoming and instead sees Koly as an unwanted liability. However, Hari’s sister gets married and Koly’s father-in-law passes away after a while, leaving the two of them alone together in poverty.

The two get an invitation one day to live with Koly’s sass’s brother in New Delhi, however sass intentionally splits up with Koly en route and leaves her stranded. With the help of a rickshaw driver named Raji, Koly finds a house for widows and ends up getting a job in embroidery, teaching Raji to read. Despite the social stigma surrounding being a widow, Raji expresses his intention to let Koly move to his farm and marry her, and this is exactly what they end up doing.

I found Homeless Bird to be a powerful bildungsroman about growing up and finding one’s place in the world. It’s setting in India makes it quite unique and enables readers to learn more about another culture, as the reader frequently throws in familial terms like sass and sassur. The ending of the novel is quite satisfying, as despite all of her hardships, the titular “homeless bird,” is able to find a home and a place where she ultimately belongs, making this an engaging book for readers of all ages.

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