Little Princes by Conor Grennan

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In 2004, Conor Grennan began an around-the-world journey with a two-month stint volunteering in Little Princes, a Nepalese orphanage near Kathmandu. He took on the work less as a humanitarian effort than as a way to justify spending the next ten months indulging his urge to travel, he says.

Grennan had no intention of making the orphanage or the children of Nepal his life’s work. “Volunteering in an orphanage was a one-off,” Grennan writes in Little Princes, “an experience that you would never forget and never repeat.” He wasn’t callous, just uninvolved.

But what he could not know then was how deeply these children would affect him, compelling him to return again and again to do all that he could to help them. What he also did not learn at first was that most of the children were not orphans, but victims of child trafficking. This knowledge changed Grennan’s life and gave it a compelling purpose: to return the “lost boys of Nepal” to their homes and reunite them with their families.

Stolen Lives

The spunky children Grennan grew to love—intelligent Santosh, little Nuraj, Crazy Rohan who always laughed and made faces, and so many more—began life with their families in remote Nepalese villages while civil war raged in the country. During the turmoil, Maoist rebels conscripted young boys, tearing them away from their homes and loved ones. They also claimed large portions of the farmers’ produce for their army. Survival in Humla, one of the most remote areas in Nepal, had been difficult in the best of times, but it became almost impossible under the harsh Maoist rule.

Parents watched in fear as boys were taken from their neighbors. Even when their own sons were spared, they worried over how to feed them. And then a man came to their villages, offering—for a price—to take the boys to safety in Kathmandu. To provide them with food. Clothing. Shelter. And—a lure as powerful as a narcotic—to give them an education.

Sacrificing nearly all they had, thousands of parents begged for the privilege to send their children to safety. They sold their farms and homes. They sold their livestock. And they paid outrageous sums to have the man escort their beloved children several days’ journey from the only homes the boys—and sometimes girls—had known.

But the man who played Pied Piper to the children of Humla was not a good man. Once they reached Kathmandu, he sold the children into slavery or abandoned them in the busy streets to fend for themselves. Some children died. Others lived as household slaves, working for masters who treated them cruelly. A few of the lucky ones ended up in orphanages like Little Princes.

Next Generation Nepal

Grennan could not rest once he learned that the “orphans” had living parents. The children, too, believed their parents had died, a story the trafficker told them over and over again. For most, though, that story was far from the truth.

After returning to the U.S., Grennan established a nonprofit organization, Next Generation Nepal (NGN), to care for abandoned children. Once he learned that the children still had families living in their villages, he dedicated himself to reuniting them.

A Multi-layered Story

Much of the book is about Grennan’s work trying to locate eight of these children, whom he met just before leaving Nepal the first time. When he learns that the trafficker has recaptured the children, fear for their safety haunts Grennan for long weeks and months. In some ways, the search for the children plays out like a detective story, with Gyan, the gentle but powerful head of Nepal’s Child Welfare Board, working as cannily and effectively as any heroic fictional gumshoe or television cop.

Grennan’s dear friend and colleague, Farid, is the stabilizing force, holding together NGN’s new children’s home, Dhaulagiri House, while Grennan searches for families of the trafficked children in Humla. The journey is an adventure story, with harrowing escapes, painful injury, treacherous mountain paths, missed helicopters, and tearful meetings with families who had had no word of their children for years.

And, the book is a love story, chronicling not only Grennan’s deep love for the lost children of Nepal, but his burgeoning long-distance love with Liz, the young American who would one day become his wife. We meet Liz through Grennan’s account of their email correspondence, ache with him over whether or not she will decide to visit him in Nepal, and rejoice when they fall in love for real.

More than a Fascinating Read

Once I began reading Little Princes, I didn’t want to put it down. Grennan is a captivating storyteller, who brings to life the rambunctious, delightful, nerve-wracking, and utterly charming children who are the focus of his tale. He won me over in the first chapter and kept me riveted until the very last page.

But the book isn’t the whole story. Next Generation Nepal is alive and well, working tirelessly to reunite the lost children of Nepal with their families. It’s not a simple process, as Grennan points out, and it’s not comprised solely of joyous reunions. It comes with pitfalls and disappointments. But it’s important work—work that Grennan, Liz, Farid, and others are continuing through the NGN foundation.

If you want a fascinating read, buy Little Princes. And then, when you find yourself moved by the reality of thousands of children living in dangerous circumstances far from their families, perhaps you will be moved to donate to Next Generation Nepal.

The Fine Print

Blue Planet Green Living received a free copy of the book reviewed in this post. No other compensation or incentive was provided.

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Julia Wasson

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