Our favorite scene from Legally Blonde is the mixer on the quad after Elle arrives at Harvard. (Speaking of movies about Harvard, what if you crossed The Social Network with Legally Blonde? Would Mark Zuckerberg have invented Facebook if his girlfriend had been Elle Woods? We’ll give you a few moments to recover from us BLOWING YOUR MIND.) The incoming students sit in a circle and share something about themselves. A student named David Kidney, whose name and dress both clearly communicate that he is playing the role of dork, says, “I have a masters in Russian literature, a PhD in biochemistry, and for the last eighteen months I’ve been deworming orphans in Somalia.” We are invited to laugh — which we do — at the notion that anyone who does anything selfless and charitable to help kids in distant lands is, while certainly a good person, also probably boring, nerdy, insufferably self-righteous or some combination of all three. The David Kidneys of the world make us feel a little uncomfortable, so the easiest thing to do is caricature them.
Conor Grennan, from all accounts, has a bit more self-awareness about him than David Kidney, and his self-deprecation and humor reassure you at the start of Little Princes that he’s no saint. Taking a year off from his job to travel the world, Grennan spends three months volunteering at the Little Princes Children’s Home in Nepal. The orphans there quickly win Grennan over with their spirit, energy and playfulness. What Grennan is shocked to learn is that these kids are not orphans at all. They are from families in the remote mountain villages in the Himalayas, sold for large sums to men who promise to protect the children from Maoist insurgents and deliver them to safety. These men do no such thing — they are child traffickers. One, who goes by the menacing name of Golkka, is Little Princes’ chief villain, and the one responsible for abandoning many of the children in Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu.
That these children survived this ordeal and ended up at Little Princes is a miracle. Grennan soon sets his sights on a bigger miracle: reuniting these kids with their families. What begins as a three month volunteer stint turns into his life’s calling organizing a non-profit called Next Generation Nepal. Alongside other committed volunteers, Grennan starts his own “orphanage,” the Dhaulagiri House, for the increasing number of abandoned children who turn up in his path.
The first half of the book mixes amusing stories of the children (Grennan kept a blog during his time there; it currently exists as “Conor’s Mildly Thrilling Tales“) with Grennan’s befuddlement and slow familiarity with Nepal. Where the plot accelerates is when Grennan lands in the impoverished province of Humla and treks through the mountains to locate the families. He finds the first family and shows them a picture of their son, Anish. Grennan hands Anish’s mother a photo of her son. “It was instant recognition,” he writes.
She cried out, and the group crowded in to see. She touched it to her head, as one does with a sacred object, and broke down sobbing, two hands on the photo, thumbs pressing into it as if she was trying to enter the picture herself, to touch the boy with the oil-slicked hair parted down the middle, flashing his wide grin. The father gently took the photo from her and held it inches from his face. Then he too began to cry.
Grennan has a hard conversation with these parents, the first of many: He tells them about Golkka, and that although their children are alive and safe (and far better off than they would otherwise have been), they must never sell their children again.
What’s endearing about his journey, and perhaps the finest quality of Little Princes, is that Grennan seems possessed of no special skill or trait beyond sheer stubbornness. His story is extraordinary but he is unremarkable. (He has been dubbed the “Accidental Altruist.”) Frequently he is advised, steered or rescued by his friends and partners, in particular a Nepalese government official named Gyan who pulls strings no one else seems capable of pulling. (Grennan’s long-distance girlfriend and later wife, Liz, also partners with him.)
I (Ben) am asked in my line of work to occasionally recommend an “inspirational” or “uplifting” book, a request that usually sends my mind blank. What I find inspirational and uplifting is almost certainly not what the person asking me finds so; those are also two of the least compelling reasons I’d want to pick up a book. Little Princes is a book I could safely put in someone’s hands and recommend with more than professional enthusiasm. Conor Grennan is no David Kidney, and we should be glad for that.
You can visit the Next Generation Nepal site here.