February 25, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Marching to Freedom | New Titles on India’s Struggle for Independence

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As we prepare to celebrate the anniversary of American independence, consider two noteworthy new titles that focus on another nation’s freedom from British rule: India. While the particulars of that event are not as familiar to us as that of our own country’s fight for independence, a key figure in India’s struggle stands out even in U.S.-centric textbooks. Mohandas Gandhi’s quotations, likeness, and most importantly, practice of civil disobedience have been imprinted upon our culture and history. Whether learning about Gandhi for the first time in conjunction with lessons on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (who modeled Gandhi’s methods during the Civil Rights Movement), or Nelson Mandela (who did the same in his fight against apartheid in South Africa), or the nation of India itself, a better understanding of the political figure can be gleaned from Alice B. McGinty’s informational picture book Gandhi: A March to the Sea (Amazon Children’s, 2013; Gr 2-7) and Jennifer Bradbury’s young adult novel A Moment Comes (S & S, 2013; Gr 7 Up).

Taking place only a couple of months after India’s Declaration of Independence, Gandhi’s historic 24-day Salt March that began on March 12, 1930, is considered by many to be the turning point of his  nonviolence campaign. Forbidden by law to gather salt from the sea, the Indian people were at the subject to the British taxes on this resource that Gandhi noted was, “Next to air and water,…perhaps the greatest necessity of life.” The same high taxes made cloth unaffordable to the impoverished people. And so, Gandhi inspired them to spin their own fabric, and to walk to the beach to gather their own salt, “step by step to freedom.” In the lyrical Gandhi: A March to the Sea McGinty recounts the momentous trek, (which the leader began with only 70 companions), from his ashram community near Ahmedabad to the coast by the village of Dandi. A perfect tie-in to curriculum on the American colonies’ Boston Tea Party, Gandhi’s fist full of salt was a powerful, nonviolent call to action for India, and to the world that finally took notice of the plight of that nation’s population.

Incorporating quotations from the iconic figure’s speeches, McGinty’s poetic prose weaves historical fact into a stirring account of a divided people coming together behind a charismatic leader to take the first steps toward establishing self-rule. Highlighting Gandhi’s belief in a united country, without regard to religion or caste, the book’s text is matched in beauty by Thomas Gonzalez’s sweeping landscapes and mixed-media depictions of the thousands of people who eventually joined the march. Alternating between emotion-filled close-ups and bird’s-eye views of the man and the epic event, the stunning illustrations will draw in students from the elementary through middle school grades, as they offer a look at another country’s cry for freedom.

While Gandhi takes place at the height of man’s career and popularity, the events in Bradbury’s fictional A Moment Comes occur just months before his assassination. The title is inspired by “Tryst with Destiny,” a speech given by Gandhi successor and protégé Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minster of India, on the eve of India’s official independence and partition, August 14, 1947: “A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new; when an age ends; and when the soul of a nation long suppressed finds utterance.” The three main characters in the young adult novel struggle with obtaining their own kind of independence, even as each passing day hearkens the dawn of a newly-partitioned India and Pakistan.

Though the story has brushes of the love triangle trope often found in young adult novels, the plot’s true stars are the perspectives offered by the three very different narrators and the roles they play against the backdrop of this tumultuous period. Each struggles with the trappings of their station: a Muslim clerk to a British official, surrounded by Sikh servants who despise him; a rebellious young white woman who wishes she could love whomever she wants; and a quiet Sikh servant girl, who must provide for her impoverished family, while every day fearing assault. Readers will sympathize with Tariq, the Muslim teen who will do whatever it takes to study at the university level in England, emulating the heroes of Indian independence, Gandhi, Nehru, and Muslim leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah. The aspiring scholar’s dream is endangered when a childhood friend manipulates him into involvement with a group that is terrorizing the retreating colonizers and the Sikh majority. At the same time, Tariq’s family begins to make arrangements for moving to the area that in two months’ time will appear on maps as Pakistan.

The young people’s worlds collide when Tariq finds a potential sponsor and benefactor in Mr. Darnsley, one of the British cartographers carving up India into the two religious states. The boy uses his charm and good looks to win the Oxford man’s flirtatious daughter Margaret to his side, hoping that she will put in a good word and help him realize his dream of an advanced degree. The beautiful Anupreet looks on, still coping with a near rape, and worrying about her family’s safety. The novel’s dramatic climax unites these teens, despite their differences, and the story ends on a tenuous but hopeful note on August 15, the official establishment of the two separate countries.

Whether focusing on Gandhi’s belief that Hindus and Muslims must work together to create a united India, comparing India’s fight for independence to the American colonies’ battle, or recognizing Gandhi’s nonviolence principles in Dr. King’s civil disobedience movement, Gandhi and A Moment Comes offer springboards for discussion on prejudice, imperialism, independence, and freedom.

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Shelley Diaz About Shelley Diaz

Shelley M. Diaz (sdiaz@mediasourceinc.com) is School Library Journal's Reviews Team Manager and SLJTeen newsletter editor. She has her MLIS in Public Librarianship with a Certificate in Children’s & YA Services from Queens College, and can be found on Twitter @sdiaz101.

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