Saturday, October 23, 2010

Little Princes: One Man's Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal by Conor Grennan

Publisher: HarperCollins
Imprint: William Morrow
Pub Date: 01/25/2011

Author Website : click here
Publisher's Website : click here
NONFICTION - ADULT: Biography/Autobiography

Of all the countries in the sub-continent Nepal is probably one that  impinges least on world consciousness. You would have thought that being the proud keeper of the Everest , it would be better known, but statistics show that a large  majority of people wrongly perceive the Everest as belonging to India ,or even China!  Very little Nepalese literature has made it into English, nor is there a good selection of travel or memoir writing set in the country, so when I chanced upon "Little Princes: One Man's Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal" by Conor Grennan, I knew I had to read it.

Twenty-nine-year-old Conor Grennan left his secure home and job in the USA in Nov of 2004 intending to travel the world.  He decided to make Nepal his first stop and chose to volunteer at an orphanage during his stay, which, by his own admission was engineered  to impress people.  When he arrived in Nepal the mountain kingdom was in the middle of a civil war with the Maoists vowing they would not drop their arms until the King abdicated his throne and a People's Republic of Nepal was established.

The Orphanage was called  "The Little Princes Children's Home" and had come together under the watchful and caring eye of a young French woman called Sandy.  Sandy was a keen hiker  and once, trekking up in a mountain village in Nepal, she learned that the Maoists were kidnapping children who lived in remote and isolated mountainous villages and putting them to work in the rebel army.  Parents terrified that they might lose their kids to the rebel army, fell prey to a man called "Golakk" who promised these parents that for a fee he would take their children to Kathmandu (the capital city of Nepal) where he would feed, house and send them to school.  The gullible parents sold everything they had so that their children could leave with Golakk to what they naively presumed was a "better life".  Instead, Gollack pocketed the money and dumped these kids on the streets to fend for themselves.  Sometimes he sold them to rich Nepalis to work as domestic servants and sometimes these kids were trafficked across the border into Nepal as sex slaves.  Sandy was so distraught upon hearing this, she immediately set out to establish a shelter for these abandoned kids which she named "Little Princes" after Antoine de Exupery's novel titled "Le Petit Prince".

An armed Maoist soldier

When Conor arrived at "Little Princes" the eighteen kids were so delighted to see him they completely swarmed him.  They used him as a human jungle jim, hanging from his neck, his shoulders and wrists. Any trepidation that Conor felt about not having any experience with children completely dissipated in that moment and over the next few days he actually enjoyed waking up to them, helping them to get ready for school and looked forward to playing soccer and carom with them in the evenings.

The children often shared stories of their remote and mountainous village home, Humla, with Conor and he in turn told them much about the outside world - about submarines, the solar system and how man had walked on the moon.  Sometimes his stories could get him into a little trouble like the time the boys wanted to know what sort of food Americans ate.  "Pork, chicken, beef" replied Conor to which the shocked response was "Americans eat God?"  Nepal is a predominantly Hindu country where the cow is worshiped and never, ever eaten!

Soon it was time for Conor to leave Nepal and set out on his world trip. Every one of those kids asked Conor if he was going to return to the "Little Princes" home and although he was advised against answering in the affirmative he gave them his word that he would be back.

And he DID return!  Not only did he return to the orphanage but he vowed to set up another orphanage where other trafficked kids could have a chance at a normal life, he also vowed to travel to Humla to find the kids' parents so that they could be reunited with each other.  With his few savings and some small donations from friends and family he set up a home which they called "Daulagiri" (after the seventh-tallest mountain in Nepal) and he set off with a translator and two porters (carrying rice and supplies) for Humla to look for the parents.  It is this mission to Humla that predominates the second half of this fine book.

 HUMLA (Nepal's Back of Beyond)

Humla, the region  the Little Princes came from, is an impoverished village on the border of Tibet. You could say it is a remote region in the remotest part of Nepal.

In his own words:

"Humla is the most remote part of the country, and one of the poorest, which is saying something in Nepal. There are no roads, and the guerrillas (Maoists) had blown up all the bridges. You had to cross the river on rope pulleys, with people on either side pulling you. Trekking in this region meant "climbing straight up and straight down" jagged peaks and pinning yourself against cliff walls when a herd of sheep or water buffalo came barreling around a bend" 

As Conor entered the hard-to-reach villages he gave village elders the names of families they were looking for and as the families were brought out to meet him, he presented them with photos of their children. Grennan's beautiful narration of the parents' reaction to finding out their kids were alive is so beautifully rendered, it will make you cry, I know I did!  The first parents to arrive brought a bag of walnuts and honey to give to the stranger who had news of their son.  Knowing that they were dirt poor and that a gift of walnuts would have set them back quite a bit, brought a lump to Conor's throat and it made him even more determined to facilitate more such reunions.
 Conor interviewing a family with the aid of a translator. Later he would read back all his notes to the children at "Little Princes" so they each knew exactly what their parents had said.

So Conor Grenan ended up being an "accidental altruist" as one article fondly calls him and I would say he is an accidental writer too and I mean that in the nicest possible way.  He hadn't set out to write a book on Nepal, heck, he only intended volunteering for a few months in order to justify his hedonistic trip around the world, and yet, here he was three years later setting up orphanages and rescuing children from the clutches of child traffickers.  

I see this book as being an inspiration to many who might have thought of volunteering in impoverished countries but didn't feel like they had anything to offer - as Conor himself says, 
"Volunteering, whether it is in an impoverished third world nation or in your hometown, requires only that you show up. Don’t worry how little of your time or resources you may have to offer—just offer it, and see what happens."

I loved the is like a breath of fresh air.  Conor's writing style is informing but oh so companionable.  Each of those kids had a story that read like a tear jerker, but there's also plenty humour and a dash of silliness, for that's what happens when you work with kids! For the lover of culture, there is a lot of Nepal in read about its scenic beauty, its lovely and warm people, its festivals, food and so on, but he also talks about the issues that hold the country back - the poverty, corruption, the caste system, the trafficking, but  to his credit at no time does the narrative degenerate into a "woe is Nepal", instead, he seeks gently to draw from the reader a sympathy for the poor and destitute villagers caught between the rebel army and the government.
Today Conor Grenan lives in the US with his wife and young son but he continues to oversee the Nepal Next Generation organization which he founded.  If you desire to know more about the foundation or want to assist Conor Grenan in his work, do visit their site.

This book will be released by Harper Collins in January 2011. According to the author a portion of the proceeds from the sale of the book will go towards buying food, provisions, educational supplies for the orphanage and for finding more families of trafficked children in Nepal.


Leela Soma said...

What a wonderful book you've brought to our notice Angie! Just reading your review makes me want to meet this guy and the little 'princes' he's helping. As you say in the opening paragraphs we know so little of Nepal. I am not aware of their literature.
The 'accidental altruist' is so touching in many ways. The young man has obviously found his calling.Your words that his writing style is informing and so companionable tempts me to add this to the ever growing TBR pile.

As Indians we do know of trafficking of young girls to brothels in various cities in our country. It is unforgiveable that political ideologists who often sacrifice children for their cause. We find such awful action in Africa, SriLanka and some war-torn areas of the world. Children used as soldiers is just wrong and my heart goes out to the parents who gave them up hoping it is to improve their life and a safe refuge. They only wanted what is best for the children.
Would you now add Nepal to your sub-continent trip Angie?

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Leela! So very,very nice to see you here! Leela, I heard of Netgalley from all our book friends on Twitter and decided to give them a try. As soon as I scanned their list of galleys this one book called out to me - it was the title (so enchanting I find) and the fact that it was set in Nepal where the real heroes were kids!!!

I honestly didn't expect to be moved quite so much as I was. Conor Grennan is one heck of a guy and his love for the kids is so palpable, you want to just hug him!

Leela, to answer your question, I have a few good friends in Nepal, including one who runs a school for street children, so visiting the place is on the cards I would say, but not this time :)

Laura said...

Great review! I will put this on my TBR list and get it as soon as it comes out!!! Thanks!!!

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Laura, knowing you, you will LOVE this one!!!

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar said...

Hi, Angelique. Conor Grennan had a life-changing trip and he's ended up changing so many lives. This book sounds interesting. Thanks for writing about it :-)

Anonymous said...

This book sounds like it easily belongs in high school libraries where it could easily be paired with Patricia McCormick's Sold. Sold is a fictionalized story of a young girl from Nepal who is naively sold into prostitution in India.

Conor Grennan said...

I can't tell you how humbled I am by your in depth review! My wife Liz found this and forwarded it to me - thank you so much for taking so much time to talk about the issues in Nepal. It was a joy to write this book for me, to relive those days with the children. But the reason I wrote it (after being approached a couple of times with the idea) was to gain awareness for, as you call it, this forgotten part of the world. Blogs like this do great things to attract attention to these issues - thank you for that, from me and from the kids!

All the best,
Conor Grennan

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Hans! You're welcome and thank you for the comment! Conor Grennan's story is, I believe, a perfect example of how one's life can change in the most unexpected ways when we listen to hearts and our consciences. When the book is released I expect to hear that it compares with "Three Cups of Tea", but, truth be told, "Little Princes" was a much more moving and a more enjoyable read for me too!

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Campbele! I couldn't agree more...and now that I think about it, this book, especially because it involved the lives of children, will appeal to young adults in a very personal and special way. I hope very much every school library will consider buying this book. And yes, "SOLD" is another heart wrenching daughter read it and she was so moved, she couldn't stop talking about it for days!

Lotus Reads said...

Hello Conor Grennan! How very nice of you to leave me a comment here. I so wanted to mention your beautiful wife Liz, Farid and some of the Little Princes like, Santosh,Rohan,Anish and Ameeta in my review,but it was getting too long! I guess readers will have to buy the book to find out just how special all those people are!

And no need to thank me, instead, I wish to thank you...the book did so much for me and I know everyone who reads it will feel the same way.

Please do give the kids our very best! Tell them they have many friends and well wishers here in North America! :)

Sanjay said...

Lotus, thank you so much for a most wonderful review, and telling us about Conor's amazing journey and work.
I have to say I enjoyed your write up as well the write up about Conor in the UVA alumni mag.
Today's NYT mag has an article by Kristof, where he profiles Maggie Doyne who incidentally also works in Nepal around the same time as the uprising began.
Thank you for sharing this truly uplifting story.

Lotus Reads said...

HI Sanj! NP, it's inspiring, isn't it? Kristof is another hero of mine and Maggie Doyne is known to a Nepalese FB friend. It is wonderful to read about all the good work done by these people and to wonder how many more stories there are out there just waiting to be told!

Birdy said...

What an inspiring book! And lovely review :) People like Conor make the world a better place...

I have your email id, will drop in a mail soon :)

Lotus Reads said...

Sounds wonderful, Birdy, thank you!

Susan A said...

Dearest Angie,

I think everything that needs to be said, has made its way to the comments box already. An excellent inspiring journey of humanity, befits Conor and his personal legacy to Nepal. I'll certainly get a copy of the book once it's out next January. Oh, the little ones sitting down while posing for a group shot are so terribly cute. My favourite being the tiny one (4th from the right)in an oversized coat and cap (dark green one with a bright red ring and wearing khaki shorts. Too adorable for words.) :-))
Thank you, Angie. XX

Lotus Reads said...

Hello lovely Suse! What a heartfelt comment...thank you and yes, those little kids are so cute -not only are they cute, but they're so clever and funny as well. You will become better acquainted with all of them after you read Conor's book. Fourth from the right, yes, I see your little cherub. He is squatting with a serious expression on his face, right? :) I wish I knew his name Suse!

S. Krishna said...

What an amazing, heartfelt review. You've made me want to go pick up this book immediately.

Lotus Reads said...

Dear Swapna, you made my day, thank you! The book will have its release in Jan sometime(I am also impatiently waiting to buy a copy!), but in the meanwhile maybe you can read it at

Srijith Unni said...

Truly inspiring.. Must read this one must visit Nepal..! :) Lots on To-do list

Great review!

With Best Regards,

Lotus Reads said...

Thanks Srijith! That's exactly how I felt after reading the book - I put Nepal almost at the top of my list of places to visit! :)

Bhaswati said...

What a wonderful book this sounds--honest, unpretentious and a fun read. Thanks for this detailed and insightful review, Lotus!

Hotels Link Exchange said...

Conor's story is one that tugs at the heartstrings, and it challenges us to look at things differently. Even after finishing the book, I have been thinking about the children in the orphanages, and the horrific situations that put them there. It is an amazing and inspirational story of how one person can change many, many lives.
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BookBagLady said...

Hi Angelique:

Remember me, Louise? I'm back. Just wanted to let you know that your in-depth review of "Little Princes" was fabulous. I read it as well and loved it. I think it's my favourite book this year so far.

I've started a new blog this week for reviewing books. I don't really care if anyone follows them, I just wanted some place to call my own with my books.

I'm still Book BagLady.

Hugs for old times,

jamesreegan said...

Sounds wonderful, Birdy, thank you!

jamesreegan said...

challenges us to look at things differently. Even after finishing the book, I have been thinking about the children in the orphanages, and the horrific situations.