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Lion: A Long Way Home (Young Readers’ Edition)


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Book Review

Lion: A Long Way Home (Young Readers’ Edition) by Saroo Brierley has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Plot Summary

Saroo was born in India to a Hindu mother and a Muslim father. When Saroo’s father leaves his mother, money is scarce. Saroo’s mother struggles to earn enough to feed and shelter her four children, so they are almost always hungry. They also receive no education. Nevertheless, Saroo is happy. He steals food with his brothers and cares for his sister.

When he is 5, Saroo convinces his older brother Guddu to take him to the train station. They sneak aboard a train near their home and exit onto a station in a place Saroo calls Berampur. Saroo is told to wait on a bench as Guddu scavenges for food and coins around the train platform.

Saroo falls asleep and awakes to see a train in front of him. Confused, Saroo wonders if Guddu is on the train. He is worried that the train will pull out, and he will be left alone. He boards the train and realizes that no one is in the carriage. He thinks that Guddu will find him and falls asleep again. When he awakes, the carriage doors are closed, the train is moving, and he is trapped. Much later, the carriage doors open, and Saroo enters Calcutta.

Saroo does not know how to get home. He speaks Hindi, not Bengali, which is the main language in Calcutta. He does not speak well, cannot read and does not know the name or location of his hometown. He receives little help and is too distrustful of the police to ask them for help. For days he sneaks aboard random trains, but they always return to the same station in Calcutta.

Saroo begins to sleep at the end of a train platform with other orphaned children. After children in the station begin being kidnapped and a train almost hits Saroo, he decides to take to the streets of Calcutta. He has difficulty communicating with anyone and has to scavenge, steal and beg for food. Saroo loves playing in the water but cannot swim. He almost drowns in a river twice, but is saved by the same homeless man both times. He doesn’t thank him.

Saroo is attacked by a gang of young men, but escapes them. When Saroo is wandering around the rail yards, he meets a railway worker who shelters and feeds him for a couple of days. The railway worker brings a man to his shack that he says will help Saroo. The man has Saroo lie down next to him on a bed. Nothing happens, but Saroo senses that the man is dangerous. At his next opportunity, Saroo runs away. He is chased by his host but escapes.

A boy and his mother, who are strangers to Saroo, briefly take him in. After Saroo fails to come when called, the mother throws a rock at him and quickly abandons him. A teenager Saroo meets on the streets takes Saroo to his family, and Saroo stays with them for several days. He then takes Saroo to the police to find his family. Saroo mistrusts the police, but does not run away. He wishes he could remember the young man’s name.

Saroo is taken to a juvenile detention center where he is bullied and beaten, before being sent to an orphanage run by the Indian Society for Sponsorship and Adoption (ISSA). Mrs. Sood, who arranges his adoption, tells Saroo that she is going to try to find his home and family. At Nava Jeevan, the orphanage run by ISSA, Saroo is treated well and fed more regularly. When ISSA and the police fail to find Saroo’s family, he is put up for adoption. An Australian family adopts him when he is 6.

Saroo adapts well to life in Australia but sometimes struggles to cope with how the culture works. For example, Saroo is upset when he sees his mom putting beef in the refrigerator and protests when his mother drives him somewhere, implying that he is not accustomed to women driving. Saroo’s Australian parents have a passion for adoption and give other families advice on adoption. They treat Saroo well, taking him on family vacations and being patient with him as he adjusts to a new culture.

His parents adopt another child from India, Mantosh. Saroo is eager to please, but Mantosh is initially loud and disobedient. Mantosh has spent longer in Liluah, the juvenile home that Saroo stayed in, and was more scarred by the experience. Saroo grows older, discovering a passion for sports and working hard to be successful in high school. Saroo thinks of his family in India often, but it takes him a while to tell anyone his story. Saroo’s adopted parents don’t push him to tell his story too soon and understand when he brings up his biological family.

When Saroo goes to college, he meets Indian students. This reignites his interest in finding his Indian family. He uses Google Earth to survey areas with names similar to the ones he called home as a child. He gives up due to the limitations of the technology available, the hugeness of the task and his preoccupation with college. He also admits that he may have been afraid of failure.

After Saroo graduates from college, he gets a job with his father’s business, which sells equipment such as industrial hoses, fittings, valves and pumps. Saroo’s brother Mantosh later joins the business. After Saroo goes through a bad breakup, he moves in with a friend and gets access to faster internet and a more modern laptop. Saroo continues his hunt for home. He begins to follow train lines out of Calcutta in search of the train station where he was lost. Unless he has a commitment that he can’t avoid, Saroo spends hours each night searching for his childhood home before going to bed.

When he moves in with a girlfriend, he continues his quest. He doesn’t tell his parents about the search, as he’s worried that they would think he is unhappy with his life in Australia. When he is about 30, he finds the name of a place he recognizes. Saroo is fairly confident that he has found his old home. When he tells his parents, they respond cautiously. His father is initially doubtful and everyone wonders what the discovery means for their future. Later, when Saroo asks his parents and girlfriend what they think he should do, they all say that he should go. They all want to go with him, but he chooses to go alone.

Almost a year after he finds his presumed home on a map, Saroo returns to India nervous, doubtful and restless. He struggles to sleep, and India feels like a foreign country to him. He no longer speaks the language, and everything looks dirtier than he remembers. Before long, he finds his childhood home and discovers his mother living nearby. Saroo has an emotional reunion with his mother, sister and brother, but not his oldest brother, Guddu. Several weeks after Guddu and Saroo went missing, a police officer told their mother that Guddu had died in a railway accident.

Saroo and his family communicate through interpreters. Saroo’s mother converted to Islam after Saroo’s disappearance, so she changed her name from Kamla to Fatima. Saroo slowly tells his family his story. Shekila, Saroo’s sister, has a husband and two sons.

Some people doubt that Saroo is who he says he is, but his mother never doubts. She points out a scar that Saroo received as a child. Saroo has a difficult time not feeling guilty about his brother’s death. He contacts his parents in Australia and tells them he found his family. They are happy for him.

The day after Saroo is reunited with his mother, his brother Kallu introduces him to his wife, son and daughter. When the local news finds out about Saroo’s story, they interview him. Because Guddu and Saroo were gone, their mother could afford to send Shekila and Kallu to school. Kallu was burdened by being the only man in the house and left school early to support Shekila and their mother. As adults, Shekila became a schoolteacher, and Kallu became a factory manager who supplemented his income by being a school bus driver. Saroo discovers that his name is actually Sheru, which means lion.

Saroo then tells the story of his adopted parents. His Australian mom, Sue, was born to a father who was psychologically scarred in WWII. She had a harsh upbringing. John, his adopted father, was born to an English father who immigrated to Australia. Sue’s father passes away before Saroo meets him. Sue had a vision as a teenager of a brown-skinned child by her side. After Sue and John marry, they decide to adopt.

At first, Tasmanian law prevents them from adopting if they can have their own children; however, 16 years after their decision to adopt, they realize the law has been changed. Since ISSA puts children with families the fastest, they send their file to the organization, and Saroo arrives three months later. Saroo says that he’s grateful to his adoptive parents for the life they gave him. His adopted mother wishes more Australians would sponsor and adopt children and that Australia would simplify adoption laws.

When Saroo is about 3, his biological father leaves Saroo’s mother to live with another woman. His second wife is jealous, and Saroo’s mother believes that she keeps him from seeing his first wife and kids. Saroo’s mother did not divorce her husband. Saroo has a memory of visiting his father, his new wife and their baby. Saroo’s father chases after Saroo’s mother, and they shout at each other. A crowd of Hindus and Muslims gather, but the crowd disperses after Saroo’s father hits his first wife in the head with a rock. Saroo’s siblings don’t forgive their father and have sworn never to see him again. Saroo disagrees, hoping to see him again someday and maybe bring reconciliation to the family.

Saroo returns to Australia and reassures his family that he is still the same Saroo, but the experience changed him. The word gets out that he found his family, and the local and international media want him to tell his story. Book publishers and film producers approach him. He wants to tell his story in hope of inspiring people. He stays in touch with his family in India and says that the trip between India and Australia is one that he is destined to take often.

In the winter, Saroo returns to India alone. His biological family tells him that they had never given up on the possibility that Saroo would return. After he went missing, they used extra money to search for him and hire others to investigate, but never discovered anything. His mother moved into a better house, but stayed nearby so Saroo could find her. Saroo and his siblings discuss helping his mother financially and buying her a new house. He retakes the trip when he was trapped on the train. He travels in relative comfort, but fearfully remembers the painful experience.

He revisits the station he lived in, before meeting with Mrs. Sood. She has worked for ISSA for 37 years and arranged adoptions for around 2,000 Indian children. Mrs. Sood tells Saroo that his adoption went smoothly compared to international adoptions today. They look at Saroo’s file and discuss the circumstances surrounding his adoption. Saroo says that he was lucky to survive on the streets. He thanks her for everything that she did for him.

Saroo visits Nava Jeevan, the orphanage that he stayed in. It had moved, and the building he knew is now used as a free daycare. He visits the juvenile detention center and remembers his unhappy time there. Visiting here eased the pain of his past more than anywhere else. Saroo is thankful that he survived the experience relatively unscathed.

Saroo returns to the streets alongside the river. He revisits the bridge where he almost drowned twice. He remembers the man who saved him.

Eventually, Saroo’s two mothers meet. Saroo now pays for his biological mother’s rent, food and whatever makes her more comfortable. He plans to buy her a better home in Ganesh Talai, the area she has lived in most of her life. Saroo also helps Mrs. Sood with repairs to the orphanage and says that he will do everything he can to help children like him.

Saroo has two families, not two identities. Seeing India and the lives of his family has enriched him culturally and personally. If he were never lost, much suffering would have been avoided; however, his experiences provide him with an unshakeable faith in the importance of family.

Christian Beliefs

Mrs. Sood was trained by the order Mother Theresa founded, the Missionaries of Charity.

Other Belief Systems

Saroo’s room in Australia is decorated with Hindu statues. Saroo’s biological mother is Hindu, and his biological father is Muslim. Saroo’s Indian mother converts to Islam after Saroo disappears. Saroo briefly explains the main tenets of Hinduism and Islam. Saroo’s Indian family lives on the Muslim side of town. Baba is the local “Muslim holy man,” who briefly gives Saroo, as a child, advice about dogs and appears for Saroo’s circumcision.

Saroo steals food from offerings to Durga, who Saroo says is a warrior from the goddess Mahadevi. Saroo often sees sadhus, the monks of Hinduism and Jainism. They don’t communicate with Saroo directly but comfort him with their presence. At the orphanage, a girl gives Saroo a pendent of the Hindu god Ganesh. Saroo explains that Ganesh is called the Remover of Obstacles and the Lord of Beginnings, as well as Patron of Letters. Saroo says that Genesh is the patron of this book.

Because of his Hindu background, Saroo is upset when he sees beef for the first time. Saroo’s Australian mom has a vision of a “brown-skinned child” when she was a teenager. Kallu, Saroo’s brother, tells Saroo that he questioned his Hindu faith at times after Saroo’s disappearance, but believed that the gods would bring Saroo back. Saroo describes being circumcised by Muslim men, along with his biological brother, even though the family hadn’t converted to Islam at the time. Saroo’s Indian mother visits various religious leaders in the community; they would tell her that Saroo was safe and point south, saying that’s where he was.

Saroo describes a kind of “telepathy” where he would try to tell his Indian mom that he was all right by thinking of her. The day before Saroo returns, his mother prays to Allah for blessings on her family and an image of Saroo appears in her mind. Saroo’s mother says her only desire is that he marries before she dies or sees the road to God (alluding to Allah). Kallu and Shekila tell Saroo that they pray for his family every day (assumedly to Hindu gods). Saroo says the man who saved him from drowning as a child did not gain anything, unless he believed in karma.

Saroo claims to not be a religious person, but he wants to learn more about the customs and beliefs of his Indian family to see if they offer him guidance. He says that it is difficult not to imagine some force at work beyond his understanding, but he doesn’t have any urge to convert that into religious belief.

Authority Roles

Saroo’s father abandons his family and runs off with another woman. Saroo’s family tells him that his father could be violent and take his frustrations out on them. Saroo’s biological mother is strong and sacrifices much for her family, but often leaves the children alone to take care of themselves. A mother Saroo meets tells him that she will help him; however, she quickly loses patience with him, throws a rock at him and abandons him.

Saroo distrusts the police, but they end up playing a big part in his adoption, though they don’t find his family. Mrs. Sood is Saroo’s representative for ISSA. She tries to find Saroo’s family. When she can’t, she connects Saroo with an Australian family wanting to adopt a child from India. Mrs. Sood is described as kind and charitable.

Saroo’s Australian parents take good care of him and try to understand his situation but don’t entirely understand why he needs to search for his family in India. Saroo says his teachers were not ready to help his brother Mantosh adjust to a new way of life, but no examples are given. Saroo initially is not comfortable with his Australian mother driving; he implies that his history in India did not prepare him for women driving.

Profanity & Violence

Saroo runs from a dog, falling and hitting his head. A motorcycle hits Saroo as he is moving watermelons across the street, injuring his leg and cutting his head. Saroo and his brothers steal from guards armed with guns. A boy from a gang slaps Saroo, and the gang throws glass bottles at him. In the juvenile detention center, other kids beat Saroo, and punishment for fighting is delivered indiscriminately with a cane.

Guddu dies in an accident, and Saroo’s mother identifies the body. Saroo’s adoptive grandfather Josef has a stepmother who tries to poison the man. Josef fights against Germany in WWII and is scarred by the experience. Josef is angry and violent and comes from a background in which beating wives and children is commonplace.

Saroo’s circumcision is painful but is not described in detail. Men hold him down while he is circumcised. Saroo’s family tells him that his father was sometimes angry and violent. Saroo’s Indian father hits his mother in the head with a rock.

Sexual Content

Saroo and his girlfriend live together.

Discussion Topics

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Additional Comments

Poverty: Some of the poor in India are missing eyes or limbs, or are diseased.

Racism: When Saroo registers for a sports team, a woman says she doesn’t want her son on a team with a black boy.

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