I have been promising an antidote to the bleak view I have been taking of my adopted country in my past few political entries. Here it is, today, in the form of a book review.
The book is called Little Princes: One Man's Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal, by Conor Grennan. Lest you fear, as I did when I first scanned the title page, that this might be just another chronicle of do-good activity in a distant part of the world, let me assure you that it's also an extraordinarily compelling human drama, leading up to a sometimes nightmarish "journey into the interior," in a landscape forbidding enough to put body and soul to the ultimate test.
But first, the context. As a very young man, freshly graduated from the University of Virginia, Conor embarks on a world trek, part as a challenge to himself, part with the vague intention of making a useful contribution to those less fortunate than he. Along the way, in a rather self-conscious gesture of goodwill, he volunteers to work for a spell at "Little Princes," a children's shelter near Kathmandu--and falls, unexpectedly, under their spell. What was initially not much more than a desire to impress his friends and family back home turns into a full-blown obsession once he falls in love with these rambunctious kids and learns something of their predicament.
They are the children of war, torn away from their families in the remotest of villages in the Himalayan foothills by men--there is one particular villain in this piece--who extort the last pennies from parents gullible enough to believe their children will have a better future if they let them go. Instead, once in the hands of their abductors, the children are treated cruelly, starved and beaten in filthy, overcrowded homes, and sold into servitude--or worse. Only a lucky few are rescued by a pitifully small and underfunded Nepali organization and a handful of dedicated and compassionate foreigners, whose number Conor joins.
The children are, properly, at the center of this story. They are a diverse bunch, all undeservedly wounded in varying degrees, all survivors, each in their own way, a maelstrom of energy and mischievous activity whose sheer, naked humanity captivates Conor and compels his commitment to them. It becomes his mission in life to do what he can to protect them, provide them with food and shelter and a rudimentary education--and eventually to attempt to reunite them with their families.
That's the bare bones. The meat is in the love. Initially as self-absorbed as the average young person in the privileged Western world, Conor finds himself confronted with real hardship, widespread suffering, deprivation and violence in a country torn apart by civil war, where hard-line Maoist rebels fight implacably against a feudal monarchy and where the vast majority of people are caught up innocently in the chaos, whether in tiny rural communities or the teeming back alleys of the capital--all evoked in sharp relief in Conor's narrative. In this flight-or-fight situation, he chooses to stay, and the story he tells becomes also, but unobtrusively, about his personal change and growth. Observing, and having to struggle at first hand with human suffering, this young American becomes himself more human, more fully compassionate, more concerned with the happiness of others than his own.
His story is also about the power of family love. The final, harrowing journey I mentioned above, into the hinterland of Nepal, is Conor's search for the parents of the children he has been caring for, with the intention of reuniting them--or at least re-connecting them with the reassurance that they are safe. These encounters in tiny mountainside villages are among the most touching scenes in the book. The author never loses respect for these hardscrabble people, so far from his own cultural background; and he never condescends. When I say the journey is a harrowing one, I think back to the old meaning of that word, the harrowing of the soul--because it involves excruciating pain and daunting physical impediments, described in such riveting detail that we, the readers, feel that we are living through it with the author. That we also experience the towering beauty of the natural environment is sometimes small compensation. But the greater compensation by far is the joy--both for the parents and the children--in reconnecting. Conor shows us that the love of the human family transcends the boundaries of time and place.
There is also, in his book, a love story of his own--as touching, in its peculiarity as the story of the children and their families. It slips in from the side, unexpectedly, and takes a while to blossom; we sense that it is a natural offshoot from Conor's development from that relatively careless youth to a man of substance and compassion, an opening-up to love that might not have been possible for him earlier in the book.
I think I can guarantee you a good deal of joy and laughter as you read this book, and more than a few tears--not the sentimental, tear-jerky kind of tears, but the kind that well up from full and genuine emotion. You will surely share Conor's love for the kids he comes to know, and his concern for their future. I hope you might want to find out more about them and, perhaps, to help them. It takes only a click of the mouse to visit Conor Grennan's Next Generation Nepal foundation, and another to buy a copy of his book or make a contribution--as I plan to do.
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