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Book Review - Tiger Boy By Mitali Perkins

By Tara Menon

Review of Tiger Boy

by Tara Menon

Tiger Boy
By Mitali Perkins
Charlesbridge Publishing, 2015

Mitali Perkins book Tiger Boy is an award-winning novel for children aged seven to ten.  The book is about the survival of village communities and Bengal tigers in one corner of the world that Indian-American children may not be aware of.  The Sunderbans, located in the Bay of Bengal, is an archipelago of islands, some of which belong to India and some to Bangladesh.  In West Bengal, the Sunderbans comprise a hundred and two islands.  Fifty-four of them are inhabited and the rest are used as reserves to help preserve the endangered Bengal tigers and mangrove forests.  The villagers have a difficult time getting by as cyclones strike every one to two years, causing crops to fail; the environment is replete with dangers; and land loss can result from cyclones, soil erosion, and deforestation.  There is also the possibility of a villager becoming prey to escaped tigers. 

Tiger Boy features an admirable, believable, courageous hero, who lives in the Sunderbans of West Bengal, and a villain, largely in the background but integral to the story.  The hero is Neel, a Class Five student, chosen by the headmaster to write an exam that could win him a scholarship to a private boarding school in Kolkata.  However, he doesn’t study as hard as he should because he doesn’t want to leave his family and the Sunderbans. 

  Neel spends an afternoon swimming in a pond with his friend Ajay.  Another friend, Viju, comes by with the exciting news that a tiger cub has escaped from a reserve.  The newcomer in their island, Gupta, has hired Viju’s father to look for the cub so he can sell it on the black market for its tiger pelt and body parts, which are used as medicine.  Neel is distraught for the cub’s sake.  His father makes money from fishing and gathering honey but, as the income is insufficient, he works part-time for Gupta.  Like the other desperate villagers, he sometimes ventures into the reserves, since there is more fish and honey there than on the inhabited islands.  The villagers continue to wear decoy masks on these trips even though the tigers aren’t fooled any longer.  The men unlucky enough to be caught in the animals’ territory are killed.  

Later at home, Neel’s mother tells her son that if he obtains the scholarship, finishes his education, and gets a job, he will be able to provide for the whole family.  Rupa, his sister, envies him for having the opportunity to obtain the scholarship.  After Class 4, she quit school to help her mother, who was sick then, with the chores.  Perkins shows the disadvantages village girls face, a theme she elaborated on in a previous novel, Rickshaw Girl.

Neel is crestfallen when he overhears his father say he is going to help Gupta look for the cub so he can get enough money to afford a mathematics tutor for Neel.  Rupa pleads with their father not to search for the cub.  Neel tells his father he is a bigger man than the headmaster and Gupta.  The illiterate man speaks eloquently to his son, “’But they can both read.  And write.  And that gives them a certain kind of power in this world, Neel—don’t you see?  I want you to have that power.  Besides, we have different talents, you and I.  This is mine.’  Baba lifted his hand and showed Neel his palm.  Then his big palm rested on Neel’s head.  ‘And this is yours.’”  The father remains resolute in his decision.  Family clashes over what is right are universal and rarely does a parent become influenced by a child.  Neel’s father has a kind attitude that prevents him from being overbearing or scathing or abusive.  

Education slips further and further from Neel’s mind; the pathetic plight of the cub captures his imagination.  She needs to avoid the dangers of the island – Gupta’s hunters, high tide, crocodiles, and snakes.  At night, Neel and Rupa bravely sneak out to find the cub before anyone else does.  Perkins vibrantly recreates the island at night, highlighting the difficulties of finding the animal in the menacing environment.  Their adventure leads them into trouble with possible far-reaching consequences.  Will the boy be able to save the tiger?  Will he be able to find happiness and success by staying true to his principles?  Perkins’s storyline is unpredictable, enhancing our enjoyment of the novel.    

Jamie Hogan illustrates Tiger Boy, like he did in Rickshaw Girl, with black and white pictures.  The colorful cover shows Neel with eyes that burn like a tiger’s.  He holds a cub bound to evoke our protective instincts.  The effect of black and white can be striking as demonstrated in the picture where Hogan plays with illumination, aligning the moon and orb of the flashlight, contrasting the bold white of a shirt with the white patches of human faces against the black sky. 

Perkins conveys the role that education can bring in alleviating the lives of the villagers, but she also shows it doesn’t necessarily bestow eloquence or politeness.  The headmaster routinely murders proverbs (Neel has to stop himself from correcting them) and he is crude, a foil to Neel’s illiterate father.  Throughout her novel, Perkins makes her young readers aware of the myriad issues she seamlessly weaves into the story while they, like Neel, worry about the fate of the cub and the children, too, during their nocturnal quest.  Poaching will no longer remain a vague or unknown illegal activity, but something indulged in both by greedy individuals like Gupta and good men desperate for cash.  The dangers of living in remote places, like the Sunderbans, as opposed to a safe, modern city or suburb or town will make readers appreciate their easier lives and the lives of those less fortunate.  

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