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Once in awhile a novel comes along that leaves an indelible mark on the reader’s heart. The Orphan Keeper by Camron Wright is that kind of book. Those who read his award winning The Rent Collector will be anxious to pick up this one. They won’t be disappointed.
THE ORPHAN KEEPER by Camron Wright
In The Orphan Keeper Camron Wright introduces a small boy, seven-year-old, Chellamuthu, living an ordinary life in a poor section of a city in India. He works hard, but he also plays hard with other children. He has a brother a few years older and a baby sister. His father holds various jobs, but is an alcoholic who spends most of his small wage on drink. His mother is deeply religious, works hard, and is the glue that holds their family together. He is quick, resourceful, curious, and accustomed to tending his baby sister, running errands, and he sometimes earn a tiny wage. Like most children his age, he sometimes disobeys, doesn’t return home when he should, and takes foolish chances. His older friends teach him to steal. One hand is scarred from an accident that occurred while helping his father and both feet are scarred from from punishment inflicted on him by his father for disobedience. One day the child is kidnapped off the street and sold to an orphanage. A short time later he is adopted by an American couple.
Being separated from his family, especially his mother, and all that is familiar to him, including his language, is devastating for the child. As he struggles to learn a new language, he also has to learn to eat different food, sleep in a bed, use a bathroom, answer to a new name (Taj), and worship a different god. He’s also conscious of being the only dark skinned child in his school and neighborhood. The only way he can deal with all the changes in his life is to shut out his memories of the past.
When Taj finishes high school, he’s not certain he wants to go to college until a counselor suggests he study abroad for a year. He ends up in London living with an Indian family. This experience, plus the friendship of another exchange student, begins to awaken old memories and stirs a desire to return to India to discover who he really is. A surprising encounter with an Indian girl with an odd connection to his past aids him in his search to learn whether or not he still has a family in India, where he was born, and was he stolen or sold.
This novel is based on the life of a real person and the author has made a few changes concerning time and events to make the narrative flow more easily. Often novels that follow closely the life of a real person are awkward and feel unrealistic. Not so with this one. The Orphan Keeper is a powerful story, well told. The characters’ strengths and weaknesses have been captured in a way that flows smoothly and brings them to life. The author is adept at relaying strong messages through dialog and actions rather than through explanatory words. He also leaves much for the reader to mull over and form his/her own conclusions. It’s up to the reader to decide whether the man who ran the orphanage did the children a favor or committed a heinous crime. And was he sold by the older boys Chellamuthu played with or perhaps a family member?
Class distinctions and the protocols surrounding them, marriage and social customs, parenting, family relationships, and a number of moral dilemmas brought about by poverty, self-preservation and differing cultures enrich the story and add a fascinating level of awareness to the book.
Camron Wright has created another story that like The Rent Collector will not be easily forgotten. This one is a keeper.
A graduate of Brigham Young University, Camron Wright also has a master’s degree in writing and public relations from Westminster College. He is the author of two award winning novels, Letters for Emily and The Rent Collector. He is married and he and his wife are the parents of four children. They live in Utah.
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THE ORPHAN KEEPER by Camron Wright, published by Shadow Mountain an imprint of Deseret Book, 432 pages, hardcover $24.99. Also available on CD and for eReaders.