Review: Secret Keeper

“Asha paused to flick the sweat from the crook of her elbow. Suddenly she caught sight of a face staring at her through the coconut leaves.” p. 31

Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins.
Delacorte Press, Random House Children’s Books, New York, 2009.
Historical fiction, 225 pages.
Lexile:  800L  .
AR Level:  5.3 (worth 7.0)  .

Asha’s father has gone to America to look for a new job, leaving his family in the care of his older brother’s family.  Already saddened by the move from Delhi to Calcutta, Asha, her beautiful older sister Reet, and their mother wait and try to fend off marriage proposals, rebukes from the other women, and a life of servitude and confinement.

Secret Keeper Mitali Perkins resized

Asha’s mother suffers from depression and fits that her daughters describe as visits from the Jailer, when her face and mind go blank.  She attempts methods of coping such as knitting or cooking, but as their life circumstances deteriorate, she’s unable to function, leaving Asha in charge of their physical safety and everyday needs.

Class is a big issue in this book.  Ma was an uneducated village girl while Baba’s family was prosperous.  They’d already chosen his bride, but he refused her and insisted on marrying Ma despite her low status.  She left everything, and everyone she knew behind for him, while he ran from the shame and anger of his family to make a life with her.

Beyond classism, there are also many examples of Baba’s family talking down to Asha because of her appearance and forward notions.  Colorism is also present, and I believe some of the negative references had to do with different castes as well.  Although other characters are not always called out in dialogue, Asha feels very differently and the narration frequently goes against these opinions.

Asha’s dream is to become a psychologist, but political instability has cost her father his job.  The girls can no longer attend school and they will be living with his mother and his brother’s family while he searches for employment in America.  The family’s entire hopes are pinned on his success or failure, a burden that Asha’s cousin Raj is already feeling in his family with a mother and two younger sisters to support when he comes of age.

The story is told in a third person limited voice, focusing mainly on Asha, and then through her, her mother and sister.  There are occasional excerpts from her diary too.  Asha is unique for a girl of her time and status – as a child she was treated as a boy and given freedoms that were abruptly rescinded when she began menstruation.  While she outwardly tries to play the part of a dutiful daughter, privately she is still a tomboy wanting to exercise and protect her family.

One challenge I had was the various honorifics used by different family members and the dak nam – “a nickname given to every Bengali child used at home by the extended family” (p. 223).  This was not a fault of the author but rather a cultural difference that was new to me.  Check the glossary if you need help during the story.  Perkins also includes an Author’s Note and a retold Tuntuni folktale.

As heartrending as it is, I appreciate Perkins not turning this into a happy story.  The choices these three women make are realistic, and at times none of the options are good.  It is even more moving to see how things were in the past and how few chances women really had, and to realize that they still survived and made the best of life as much as they could.

This book does have many potential triggers.  Many characters suffer from depression, whether situational or chronic.  Suicide is considered by several characters, and some people believe a death is by suicide.  There are references to menstruation, rape, and domestic violence.  Mention is made of girls as young as 14 marrying much older men in the previous generation.  Women are confined to the house, and sexism is rampant.  There are negative references by some characters to beggars, people who work for an hourly wage, and cross-dressing.  Violence is mentioned but occurs off-screen.

Due to the above, I would advise caution to any person with mental illness before reading this book.  It is very realistic.  I would generally suggest this more for high school students, although I have seen it in middle schools and it could work for both – there is no explicit material and Asha is a strong role-model.  Age-wise she is about 16 and her sister turns 18 over the course of the book.

I think adults would also enjoy this book.  After all, in the time period portrayed, Asha and her sister were seen as adults, old enough to marry and raise children.  Perkins has turned out another winner.  I love all of her books so far and cannot wait to read more of them.  Recommended.

 

Author: colorfulbookreviews

I work in a library by day and parent the rest of the time. I am passionate about good books representing the full spectrum of human diversity for every age group and reading level. This blog is my attempt to help parents, educators, and librarians find the best children's books authored by or featuring characters of color.

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