Summary of "Sold" by Patricia McCormick
Innocent Hill Girl
Lakshmi loves her impoverished mountain village in Patrica McCormick's novel Sold, a book the author traveled to understand before writing. Although Lakshmi's family is too poor to buy more tin to keep the rains from flooding their hut, although she has no shoes, and is nearly starving in the hard months mixing soil with her meager broth to thicken it up, she is a bright student. She loves attending her school with her friend Gita, she loves playing with her pet, a young goat. Lakshmi loves her life, with the exception of a greedy gambling stepfather that rather than contribute to feeding the family and working to prevent flooding to their rice crop in the wet months, he is at the tea house gambling away whatever the family has.
Women of Nepal are submissive to their husbands, and Lakshmi's mother reminds her the family is lucky to have found a man that would marry her and accept her children after the death of her husband, although he is an often cruel and selfish man that spends their money gambling and drinking, she cites it is decidedly looked down upon more in the society to have no man at all in the home.
Although he owes money all over town and their crops are failing, the stepfather often disappears for days leaving the wife and children to deal with his creditors and try to keep themselves fed. It is explained in the bad months many women of the village will go without eating to try to give all they have to their children to keep them alive as during the dry months, so many children are buried as they eventually starve to death and in the winter months, more children tend to die from cold and diseases. This is the norm, to the point where some women will try to prevent pregnancy by making an abortion juice from the juices of a nearby tree also used to make inks for the children's school year.
Only son's are valued in this society, daughters are thought to be a burden unless they can be sold as maids to a rich family and send home money or can be married into a wealthier family that can share its resources. When Gita leaves home to be a maid in the city, Lakshmi would like to do the same so that her family can have a tin roof for their shack, and that she can provide things like shoes and a winter coat for her brother, and food for her family for another season.
Her mother always tells Lakshmi it will not come to that, that she is meant to be in school and to learn. That the family will always find a way and that she is not meant to deal with the burden that her stepfather has put on the family by gambling.
Betrothed to a sheepherder boy, Lakshmi, hopes that one day she will have many sons and daughters and finally live a lavish lifestyle, but after her stepfather disappears for a week, then comes back with a motorcycle and new clothes that he says he won gambling, only to lose those possessions again, Lakshmi's mother is forced to sell her earnings that would have been the dowry for Lakshmi.
After her selfish stepfather has gambled away nearly everything the family has, and the crop has failed after the monsoon season, Lakshmi tells her mother she wants to go to the city just as her friend from school, Gita has to become a maid for a rich family in hopes that she can send back her pay to get a new tin roof for the home, and clothing and food for the family. Still her mother says no, and that her daughter's place is at school.
In a search for young girls to be paid, a beautiful woman at a festival fair encounters Lakshmi by accident, only later to be the subject of her greatest nightmares.
It is announced one evening that Lakshmi will be leaving the next morning to be taken to the city to find work as a maid, although her mother cries and objects, but her husband is the man of the family and she has no power over the fate of her child. Meagerly packing for her adventure, Lakshmi has no real possessions to take with her other than her bowl for meals, a hair brush, and a dress and shawl that she wears for about a month at a time between washings. She tells her mother not to worry that she will be fine and maybe even find Gita in the city. She promises to send home her wages to help the family and that she is doing her part.
She is proud when she is taken down to the store by her stepfather and sees that her new Auntie will be the woman in the yellow dress that she met the night before. She watches in confusion as her stepfather haggles over the price that Lakshmi will fetch, and decides on 800 Rupees, which equates to about $12.27 in US Currency, which seems like a great fortune to Lakshmi, whom has never had seen that much money in her life. After the transaction is made, her stepfather rather than stocking up on food and other supplies for the family begins to selfishly squander the money in the store on items for himself until Lakshmi insists that her brother needs a coat and puts in some items for her mother, the rest her stepfather will spend that day gambling again at the tea shop.
The woman in the yellow dress is cruel from the start, walking Lakshmi from village to village, passing her off to another human trafficker to get her out of Nepal and into India.
Finally she is taken to Happiness House, where under first impressions seems to be a strange boarding house for women. Lakshmi watches as a fat woman haggles for how much she will buy Lakshmi for and the woman in the yellow dress finally agrees on a price and the deal is made.
Without realizing what is in store, Lakshmi is brought to a room where she is locked in, with few visits from the other girls in the house coming to put makeup on her. Without being explained, she has been sold into prostitution, Lakshmi learns the first time she is presented with a customer and refuses.
For punishment she is locked in a room for about a week and frequently beaten as she is starved saying that she will never do those things, and that she will not bring shame upon herself.
Finally the solution is derived that Lakshmi will simply be drugged and men are paraded in and out of the locked room, the first paying to take her virginity and the others to rape her as she lays in a daze from the frequent drugging. After about a week or so, the fat woman finally tells her the rules of the house, starting with that she could no longer get a good price for Lakshmi now being "broken in" so that she would owe for rent, food, clothing, makeup, and other services provided while living in the house and when she could afford to pay off her debt, she was welcome to go back home.
Shamed by her new profession, Lakshmi learns from other women in the house that you should never run away as in the street they will shame and beat you for being a prostitute, and if you aren't killed you will be returned anyway to your mistress. There is no real way to buy your freedom, and everything you are told is a lie.
The New Math
A bright student, Lakshmi understands math and has a secret spreadsheet of her debts and what she thinks she is making her customer to be able to pay her debt off and go home. Her world is crumbling all around her and the only solace is that at least her family is getting part of her pay to better their lives, until a girl that finally paid off her debt went home- and then returned with the cruel truth that the money is never sent back to your family and that after finding out what has been done to earn it, your family will not even accept you back as a matter of honor.
If I bring a half dozen men to my room each night, and each many pays 30 Rupees, I am 180 Rupees closer each day to going back home. If I work for a hundred days more, I will surely soon have enough to pay back the 20,000 Rupees I owe Mumtaz. Then Shahanna teaches me city subtraction. Half of what the men pay goes to Mumtaz, you must take away 80 Rupees for what is charged for your daily rice and dal. Another 100 a week for renting you a bed and pillow. And 500 for the show the dirty-handed doctor gives us once a month...I do the calculations...And realize I am already buried alive- Sold "Mathematics" page 147
Without a way to repay her debt, Lakshmi, fears that she will eventually die in this place or be thrown out into the street with no future when she is too used up to keep like the other girls. Soon she is the girl that has been there the longest in only a year. She watches as new girls are paraded in and is expected to be the one to teach them the rules to keep them alive.
Being warned of Americans in the past, it is a strange American customer one night that just wants to talk and hands her a card with words she doesn't understand, although the son of a former woman that had been sold to Happiness House had taught her to read some English words from his schoolbooks as well as some Hindi. She doesn't discuss the card with any of the women of the house, but after a raid and one girl from the house is taken as collateral as, the fat woman, Mumtaz is behind in paying off the police, Lakshmi gives the card to a boy that comes by daily with a tea cart that has been kind to her in the past giving her free drinks when she explains she can't afford to spend her money thinking it was paying her debt.
Although it takes nearly a week, Happiness House is finally raided again and this time Lakshmi does not hide like the other girls, running down the stairs to the awaiting Americans and the police announcing that she was fourteen years old and had been sold against her will.
Through beautifully haunting prose, Sold takes an important global topic like human trafficking and sexual slavery and turns it into almost a poem-like narrative as it flows from Lakshmi as she goes through her daily battles to forget the hurt and pain she now feels and remember things like the sun on her face in her mountain village and the velvet feel of her goat's nose as it brushes against her cheek.
We never know if Lakshmi will make it back home, if she will be accepted or thrown away by her village when they understand what happened to her and that is the true tragedy of the victim shaming in all cultures.
Lakshmi survived for over a year in captivity using her quick wits and the tactics of other women to keep herself alive and ultimately took a chance that the card given to her by the American would even get her the help she needed. Sold is breathtakingly beautiful in its incite on this horrendous topic.