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Book Review

Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements


Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Koly lives with her poor family in India. When she is 13, her parents arrange a marriage and scrape together money for a dowry. Koly and her parents don’t meet her future husband, Hari, until the wedding day. Her parents feel angry and cheated when they discover Hari is no older than Koly and very sick. The arrangement can’t be undone, so Koly’s parents return to their hometown after the ceremony.

Koly is immediately uncomfortable with her new saas (mother-in-law) and sassur (father-in-law). She learns they’re using the dowry money to take Hari to the holy city of Varanasi. The waters of the Ganges River are supposed to have healing powers. Koly briefly speaks to Hari alone. She discovers he is spoiled and deathly ill, but kind. He likes Koly and insists his parents take her with them to Varanasi.

In Varanasi, Hari’s parents and their local friends carry Hari to the river. Dipping him in the cold water only makes him sicker, and he eventually dies. Although Koly is a widow at 13, she can’t return home or she’ll disgrace her family. She knows Sass and Sassur don’t want her, but staying with them is her only option. Sass heaps chores on her and criticizes all she does.

Koly’s only joy comes from talking with Chandra, Hari’s younger sister. When Sass and Sassur arrange a marriage for Chandra several years later, Koly feels utterly alone and dreams of escaping. Sassur, an educator, provides some comfort when he teaches her to read. He becomes increasingly weak and despondent as technology and disrespectful students undermine his effectiveness. After the school fires him, he soon dies.

Sass says they are moving because her brother in Dehli needs their help. She has purchased two train tickets. They make a stop in the holy city of Vrindavan for a pilgrimage, and Sass sends Koly for food. When Koly returns, Sass is gone.

Koly learns family members often abandon widows in this city. She survives for a few days by sleeping on a stoop and spending the remainder of the food money Sass left her. When she’s broke, she returns to the train station to find the young rickshaw driver, Raji, who carried her and Sass when they first arrived. A man grabs Koly and tries to carry her off, promising her food and fine clothing. She bites him and runs, taking refuge with a family nearby until she sees Raji. Raji takes Koly to a home for widows, which is funded by a rich woman named Mrs. Devi. The kind but strict Maa Kamala runs the home.

Maa Kamala helps Koly get a job at a flower shop with another young widow named Tanu. Tanu and Koly become friends. Koly dislikes stringing flower garlands but is thankful for a home and steady income. When Mrs. Devi visits the home, she sees the intricately embroidered quilt Koly made, depicting her childhood memories. Mrs. Devi takes Koly to meet Mr. Das, the owner of a shop where elaborate saris are made. Mr. Das hires her, impressed by her talent. Koly loves the work and enjoys the other women in the shop.

A chic young co-worker named Mala invites Koly to her apartment. Maa Kamala knows Mala and forbids Koly to go. Koly asks Tanu to cover for her and goes to Mala’s anyway. She finds herself at a party where a young man propositions her and slips marijuana in her drink. Another partygoer rescues her and returns her safely to Tanu.

Raji often visits Koly so she can teach him to read. He has dreams of leaving the city and working part of a relative’s land. Koly grows to like him and is disappointed when he stops visiting. He returns to town months later to tell her he has been pursuing his dream and building a house. He wants Koly to come and be his wife.

Koly loves Raji, but she is proud of her job and independence. She says she needs to think about his offer, but she becomes increasingly convinced she wants to be with him. She agrees to his proposal but asks him to give her time to make a wedding quilt. They write to each other often, and he tells her he’s built her a special room with views where she can do her embroidery.

Koly is still hesitant about living as a housewife. Then Mr. Das agrees to let her work from home and bring her projects to him every few months. Excited to start her new life, Koly rushes to finish the quilt that depicts the stories of her past and hopes for the future.

Christian Beliefs


Other Belief Systems

Most characters are Hindu, and their rituals and beliefs are mentioned often. The holy city of Varanasi has 50,000 shrines, as well as a large mosque where Muslims worship. Hari’s parents take him there, believing the Ganges River has the power to heal him. When he dies, they scatter his ashes over the Ganges to set his spirit free.

The city is filled with many types of holy people. Some won’t cut their hair. Some shave all of their hair or cover their faces in ash. Some wear masks so they won’t accidentally inhale a living thing, like a bug. They chant, use sacred lamps and make offerings and prayers.

Hari wears a sacred thread given to Brahman boys who have come of age. Koly bows before the household shrine, offering fruit and flowers. People honor gods, such as Krishna, for their supernatural acts and hold ceremonial celebrations for them.

Widows in Vrindavan chant for hours so the priests will give them food. An astrologer helps Chandra’s parents find her a husband and determine the most auspicious day for a wedding. Some believe the primitive, abhorrent caste, known as the “untouchables,” will pollute a man if one of their shadows falls on him.

Authority Roles

Koly’s poor parents struggle to obtain a suitable dowry. Hari’s parents do all they can to save his life. Sass criticizes Koly and steals her monthly widow’s checks before abandoning her in Vrindavan. Hari’s father secretly teaches Koly to read. Mr. Das, Mrs. Devi and Maa Kamala help Koly make a life for herself after Sass abandons her.





Discussion Topics

Get free discussion questions for this book and others, at FocusOnTheFamily.com/discuss-books.

Additional Comments/Notes

Theft: Sass and Sassur trick Koly’s parents into marrying her to their dying son so they can have the dowry. Sass takes pension checks that belong to Koly. Mala steals thread made of real gold and an intricate wedding veil from her employer.

Lying: Koly and Tanu lie to Maa Kamala about going to the movies. They add to the lie after Koly gets sick from being drugged.

Drugs: Mala has a party where bhang, part of the marijuana plant, is being used. A young man slips some in Koly’s drink, and she becomes disoriented.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book's review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Episode Reviews



Readability Age Range

14 and up


Gloria Whelan






Record Label



Harper Trophy, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers


On Video

Year Published



National Book Award, 2000; YALSA Best Books for Young Adults, 2001 and others


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