Lakshmi tells us of her home: a shack in the mountains of Nepal, where she lives with her mother, baby brother, and stepfather. Although she lives in poverty, Lakshmi enjoys playing hopscotch with her friend, attending school, rearing a goat, and dreaming of the day she will marry the boy to whom she has been promised.
But when monsoons destroy the family's crops, Lakshmi's no-account stepfather announces that she must travel to the city to find work as a maid in order to help support the family. In reality, he sells her to a glamorous-looking woman who takes Lakshmi on the first stage of her journey to faraway Calcutta, where, instead of working as a maid, Lakshmi is forced into prostitution at “Happiness House.”
The reader's horror builds because we, unlike the confused Lakshmi, know what is coming. Lakshmi's “Auntie” dresses her in a filmy pink gown and dickers over the price she will accept for the child, from a man who, in turn, sells Lakshmi to the brothel—for the fabulous price of 15,000 rupees, an amazed Lakshmi informs us. And then, we witness the ultimate clash between childhood innocence and adult greed and lust.
Unwilling to cooperate, Lakshmi is drugged, then raped by her first few “customers.” After many beatings, Lakshmi reluctantly tells Mumtaz, the sadistic brothel owner, that she will submit, believing she will eventually earn enough money to win her freedom.
“If I bring a half dozen men to my room each night, and each man pays Mumtaz 30 rupees,” Lakshmi calculates, “I am 180 rupees closer each day to going back home. “If I work for a hundred days more, I will surely soon have nearly enough to pay back the 20,000 rupees I owe to Mumtaz.”
But then a fellow prostitute tells her the truth: Not only is the brothel owner not sending money to her family back home, but with what Mumtaz charges for food, rent, and medical care, Lakshmi will never earn enough to get out. She will be forced to work until she is too old to attract customers—or becomes infected with the AIDS virus.
One day, an American comes to Lakshmi's room and asks her if she is being held against her will. He promises to take her to a shelter, where she will be fed and given new clothes, and not be forced to service men. Lakshmi—who has been told that Americans are not to be trusted—is too frightened to speak, but accepts the man's business card. But will she be able to muster the courage to use it? And what will happen if she does?
“Sold” was deservedly a finalist for the National Book Award. This young adult novel is a sensitively crafted story about a terrible reality: the sexual exploitation of children, and a world that permits it to happen. Every year, estimates the U.S. State Department, almost half a million children worldwide are sold by traffickers into the sex trade, many of them, like the fictional Lakshmi, believing they are being escorted by friendly strangers to well-paid jobs.
In an author's note, McCormick says that young women who survive the brothels “are speaking out—with great dignity. Some go door-to-door in the country's most isolated villages to explain what really happens to girls who leave home with strangers promising good jobs. Some of them—even women who are ill with HIV—patrol the border between Nepal and India on the lookout for young girls traveling without their parents.”
The subject matter makes “Sold” too intense for younger teens, but for older ones, the novel is a sensitive introduction to this heartbreaking moral atrocity. The sexual descriptions, though disturbing, are brief and not explicit. (For instance, with her first customer, Lakshmi feels as if she is being “torn in two.”) There is no clear mention of bodily organs. Another prostitute teaches Lakshmi how to attract shy men by being coy. There is talk of how, if she behaves like a little girl, she will be paid more.
It's desperately sad that our children must eventually learn about the evils of the world. But tell them we must, when they are old enough—in large part to instill in them a desire to one day fight against those evils.
Image copyright Hyperion. Review copy obtained from the publisher.
Anne Morse is a writer for BreakPoint.