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The Bridge Home

Review

The Bridge Home

Padma Venkatraman’s novel THE BRIDGE HOME tells the story of four Indian children living on the streets of Chennai, a city on the Bay of Bengal. Their adventures are told through the perspective of Viji, an 11-year-old girl, who is writing to her sister, Rukku. Although Rukku is one year older than Viji, she has developmental disabilities that cause Viji to act as her akka, or older sister. The two run away from home shortly after Viji’s eleventh birthday because of their father, who is frequently abusive toward their mother and who recently began hitting them as well. Viji dreams of being a teacher, and believes she can achieve that dream if she escapes to the city. After a harrowing bus ride that leaves them both frightened, the girls meet Arul and Muthu, who quickly become like family.

The children live on an abandoned bridge, wading through mountains of garbage for glass and metal scraps to sell to waste collectors in order to afford meals each day. Eventually, thanks to the kindness of a stranger, Rukku begins making and selling bead necklaces, which allows the four girls to purchase supplies that make their makeshift tents on the bridge feel a little more like home. This illusion of comfort and safety is shattered shortly after, however, and Viji, Rukku, Muthu, and Arul are forced to leave the bridge and make their new home in a quiet graveyard. Although the cemetery seems to be the perfect place to stay safe from those who would prey on disadvantaged children, there are other dangers lurking there.

"Venkatraman adeptly handles topics such as poverty, homelessness, hunger, the caste system, competing forms of religion and grief in a way that is accessible to even the youngest middle grade reader."

July to September is rainy season in India and these heavy rains cause the graveyard to become like a swamp, which attracts hoards of hungry mosquitoes. Arguments over whether to spend their hard-earned money on food or mosquito repellant arise. While Viji eventually wins out, the children have already been feasted on by mosquitos for days. By the time they purchase the necessary ointmentllness takes hold of part of the group. Those still in good health must make the difficult decision to place their trust in a seemingly kind woman they met in a nearby church.

What is most striking about THE BRIDGE HOME is that, despite its brevity, it is filled with such passion, emotion and detail that it is impossible not to fall in love with the characters and the story. Readers are immediately sucked into the lives of Viji and Rukku. We are able to understand and experience the tight-knit relationship between the sisters; we are able to see, hear and smell the streets of Chennai; and we are able to empathize with how difficult it is to make life and death decisions when your circumstances are so desperate.

Because of the independence and responsibility Viji inherits when she leaves home, she is forced to grow up very quickly. She learns not only to put her trust and faith in other people, but also to recognize the capabilities of Rukku, who she comes to learn has been overlooked and discounted --- even by her own sister --- due to her disabilities. Each character experiences varying levels of growth throughout this short tale, learning compassion, faith and forgiveness as well as the importance of setting pride aside in order to seek help.

Venkatraman adeptly handles topics such as poverty, homelessness, hunger, the caste system, competing forms of religion and grief in a way that is accessible to even the youngest middle grade reader. She also introduces readers to various Indian terms and phrases, which are sprinkled in throughout the story. This is a beautiful, important book that should be widely read because it teaches invaluable life lessons. Some of the most compelling lessons this book offers are that life is not about how long you live, but about how happy you are in the time that you are granted and that family is more often about those who remain loyal to you through difficult times rather than shared DNA.

Reviewed by Kat Baumgartner on February 26, 2019

The Bridge Home
by Padma Venkatraman