A MOMENT COMES by Jennifer Bradbury (Atheneum, 2013) is hands-down one of the best young adult historical fiction novels I’ve read. Set in 1947 during a bloody moment in India’s history, the novel traces the intersecting lives of three teens: Tariq, a Muslim working as translator for a British cartographer; Margaret, the cartographer’s daughter; and Anupreet, a lovely and wary Sikh girl who is one of the cartographer’s domestic staff.
The Partition of India, or the division of the subcontinent along sectarian lines, was a turbulent divide which produced the predominantly Muslim Pakistan and the majority Hindu Republic of India. The three main characters are placed squarely in the crux of this struggle, fighting for their own and their families’ safety as India boils to a fever pitch around them.
Tariq is driven by dreams of Oxford—and a forbidden admiration for Anupreet, whose people are the enemies of his own. Margaret is chafing under oppressive heat and an oppressive mother, and finds Tariq’s good looks a welcome distraction. And Anupreet is hiding painful secrets as she endures the daily violence of her surroundings. Although each character is representative of a larger class in conflict, they are finely drawn, believable people with distinct and engaging voices. Margaret’s wry, humorous personality brings many laugh-out-loud moments which contrast nicely with the suspense unfolding around her.
The focus of the story is never didactic, and remains squarely on the entangled lives of the three characters—but it also illumines an important and often unknown (in our country) event in history. The ending was delicate, satisfying and thought-provoking, and left me with a sense of the tremendous impact of Partition on human history. Also important for me as a reader, the danger and tension of the setting were captured masterfully without devolving into graphic violence. And perhaps most important of all: despite the themes of political turmoil, the mystery and depth and aching beauty of India were captured with clarity and affection by an author who has clearly lived in the country and loved its people.
Jen kindly agreed to share some insights about her inspiration for telling a story set during Partition, her research process, and what we can look forward to next. I hope you’ll check out A MOMENT COMES and Jen’s other acclaimed works, SHIFT and WRAPPED. Here’s Jen:
The story started for me in 2005 when I was teaching on a Fulbright Exchange in Chandigarh. Chandigarh was created post-partition to serve as capital of both Punjab and Haryana and is full of people with vivid recollections of partition. I was very lucky in that the friends I made and the students I taught were kind enough to answer my questions and share some of their stories with me. But the more I learned, the more I wanted to know. I was sort of stunned by how little I knew about the roots of the conflicts between Pakistan and India. The partition still stands as the greatest human migration in history, and some estimates at the loss of life rise as high as two million. Those staggering numbers, and the fact that more people don't know about them, still surprise me.
Years later, when the seeds of the story still hadn’t left me, I began writing the book as a means to try and find my way to a better understanding. A few books were really helpful in that process—Alex von Tunzelman's Indian Summer and Pammie Mountbatten’s India Remembered: A Personal Account of the Mountbattens During the Transfer of Power are two that come to mind. I was also able to get copies of Margaret Bourke White's Life magazine pictorials. She was the field photographer for Life during the time the book takes place, and the images are haunting and powerful.
Since finishing the research and rewrites on A Moment Comes, I’ve been happily tramping about in 1838. My next book, tentatively called Giant's Coffin, is set inside Mammoth Cave at the tuberculosis hospital that was established inside the cave. There are mysteries, adventures, odd medical cures and river pirates. I’m very excited about it both because it is my first middle grade novel and because it’s my first set in my home state of Kentucky. It should be out in the next couple of years.
Thanks, Jen - and thanks, Stephanie, for a great piece!