Guest Post by Padma Venkatraman
LUCKY BROKEN GIRL
by Ruth Behar
Pub date: April 2017,
Ages 10+ (Grades 5 +)
Nancy Paulsen Books, Penguin
The ARC of Ruth Behar’s debut novel, LUCKY BROKEN GIRL, carries quotes from three remarkable writers whose work I deeply admire: Sandra Cisneros (author of the classic THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET), Margarita Engle (Newbery Honor-Winning Author of THE SURRENDER TREE) and Marjorie Agosin (Acclaimed poet and Pura Belpré winning author of I LIVED ON BUTTERFLY HILL). Moreover, it’s edited by my very own editor, Nancy Paulsen, for whom I have the greatest respect. So I opened this book with the highest of expectations and I’m delighted to report that I was not disappointed.
Behar’s novel is based on the author’s early life and her experiences “as an immigrant child and a wounded child.” Ruthie, the protagonist, is a strong, sensitive eleven-year old whose family has just moved from Cuba to the United States. The novel begins with a disturbing revelation – although Ruthie is clearly intelligent, she is “put in the dumb class in fifth grade” just because she can’t speak English. I was hooked rightaway. One of my close friends in graduate school, a Latina woman, had been subjected to similar treatment in her childhood.
Despite the situation at school, Ruthie strives to master the English language and makes friends with Ramu, an immigrant child from India, who is also in her class. Having seen several secondary charaters of South Asian Indian heritage who are poorly drawn or stereotyped, especially with regard to their religious beliefs, I was pleased to note that his character and situation ring true.
Ruthie not only faces a difficult situation at school, she also deals with tension at home: her mother is often overcome with homesickness and her father is a demanding man who insists, among other things, that his wife and children, clean and smiling, greet him with a kiss the moment he returns home from work. But Ruthie manages to play with the children in the neighborhood, becoming the “hopscotch queen” and making another friend, Danielle.
But just as Ruthie begins to adapt to life in America with resilience and fortitude, tragedy strikes. A car accident leaves her confined to her bed and in a full body cast. Day after day, for weeks that turn into months, Ruthie is immobile. Her cast gets moldy and smelly and she’s put on a strict diet so her body won’t get “squishes against the cast.”
We feel Ruthie’s boredom and restlessness –but we are never bored by her narrative, which is filled with quiet moments of revelation. Ruthie’s body may be bound, but her mind cannot be shackled. Ruthie writes moving letters to her friend Ramu, to Frida Kahlo and to God. She works with a tutor from school so she won’t fall behind when she’s well enough to return. She cries, but silently, so as not to disturb her parents or her brother. She reads and dreams and discovers patience. And finally, when she is released from her body cast, she gathers the courage she needs to walk again. Staying true to a child’s voice, Behar takes us on Ruthie’s journey from anger and “hate” toward the boys who caused the accident, to forgiveness and healing.
LUCKY BROKEN GIRL is a welcome addition to the growing body of literature featuring protagonists with multiple diversities. Having never come across a protagonist who was both Latina and Jewish, I was particularly fascinated by Ruthie’s intersectional background. Her grandmother tells the story of how she came to Cuba – and it left me hoping Behar’s next book might focus on this tale, or, at least, feature yet another protagonist with this unique background.
“This was a story I was supposed to forget,” Behar says in her author’s note. I, for one, am glad Behar had the courage to remember and revisit this traumatic childhood episode, and the talent to bring her memories to life in this touching book.
Award winning American author, Padma Venkatraman, worked as chief scientist on oceanographic ships, spent time under the sea, directed a school, and lived in 5 countries before settling down in Rhode Island. Her 3 novels, A TIME TO DANCE, ISLAND’S END and CLIMBING THE STAIRS, were each released to multiple starred reviews (totaling 12), have been cited on ~50 best books lists (e.g. NYPL, Kirkus, Booklist, ALA notable) and have won numerous honors and awards: Paterson Prize, Boston Authors Club Julia Ward Howe Award, RI Book of the Year, Singapore Children’s Choice Red Dot Award, South Asia Book Award etc. She enjoys teaching, mentoring, participating on panels, giving commencement speeches and providing keynote addresses at national conferences, and has been chief guest at international literary festivals. Her work has been featured on national and international TV and radio, and in a documentary. Visit her at www.padmavenkatraman.com.