A Walk Across the Sun, written by Corban Addison, traced the ordeal of two sisters in their teens after they had lost their family in the tsunami of 2005, which destroyed their coastal town in India. While they were attempting to walk to their convent school, they were abducted by human traffickers. Ahalya, the older girl, was forced into the sex trade. Her younger sister, Sita, was coerced into drug trafficking.
At the onset of our book club meeting, a few members, including myself, opined that we approached the book initially with some apprehension, as we were aware that the subject matter involved sex and violence. Nonetheless we all felt that we were spared of the gory details of the horror of sex trade and drugs. We were drawn into the gripping development of the story line and breathed a sigh of relief at the end of the story. Author Corban Addison has a personal interest in international human rights and the abolition of modern slavery or trade in human being, as he has stated in the Afterword, A Walk Across The Sun is a fitting expression of his passion and a wake-up call to the readership of the heinous crime of human trafficking.
Our host prepared well for our meeting. She posed three questions which not only opened up the discussion but guided it to progress to other issues.
We first talked about the thematic significance of the title of the novel, which came from a poem that Thomas Clarke composed for his estranged wife, Priya, near the end of the story. Thomas’s development throughout the novel ran parallel to the journeys of Ahalya and Sita. Thomas was asking for reconciliation with his wife. His own experience in overcoming his despondency to become a crusader to free the girls had awakened his feelings, blunted probably as a result of losing his child. He and Priya grew apart after their loss of their baby as a result of SID. In his travels to help the sisters, he journeyed across a good part of the globe. He achieved personal growth meanwhile, and the sun was a sign of hope. Equally Ahlaya and Sita (especially Sita) was forced into travelling to conduct illicit acitivites. The title also reflected their finding freedom in the end. The Sun, or the bright side, prevailed.
Even so, the story also highlighted the contradictions that existed in society. Another question brought up involved the road trip to Atlanta, and Sita find out the story of Elsie, the runaway from Pittsburgh. Elsie was impressed by Sita’s command of English and Sita replied that the whole world spoke English, to which Elsie exclaimed, “That’s because America is the best country on earth.” Given the circumstances both girls were going through, the remark was indeed an irony to how America (or USA, which symbolizes the so-called civilized western world) really was.
This also opened up our discussion on whether some people willingly compromised their integrity to just be in America. Are there the willing and unwilling drug traffickers? Are there the willing and unwilling prostitutes? Personal observations were shared, including the methods of drug detection at the customs across borders, thanks of a member of our book club who worked as a customs officer.
At this point, the youngest member raised a question that we had to think of a response. She challenged the plot by commenting that to her, it was hard to comprehend why neither Ahlaya nor Sita made any attempt or even contemplated how to escape given their ability to speak English. Was this cultural, in that they came from a reasonably well-to do background and were sheltered by their family when they were growing up? We could only speculate that they were still in shock and lacked the coping mechanisms to deal with the trauma of losing their families and their personal tragedies.
Then comes the questions about the girl’s future. Thomas asked, “Will Sita ever want to marry a man after all that she has seen?” And for Ahalya, will she be accepted by her own culture after her tragedy and exploitation. The story does conclude with a note of hope. The sisters are re-united. Ahalya seems happy and wants to keep her child. The future is again open to speculation, depending on where the sisters will settle down, the availability of love and support and professional counselling. There is mention of a professional support worker involved and we can only hope that fictional as the characters are, they can overcome their adverse experience and move forward. This is what I would like to see, because I do believe in the resilience of the human soul.