54 pages 1 hour read

Mitali Perkins

You Bring the Distant Near

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2017

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Summary and Study Guide


Published in 2017, Mitali Perkins’s You Bring the Distant Near is a young adult historical fiction novel. The novel tells the stories of the Das women over three generations as they navigate cultural identity, family bonds, and personal growth. From immigrating to the United States to grappling with American culture, each woman has her challenges to face, but their love for each other gives them strength. Perkins draws inspiration from her own experiences as an Indian American woman and an immigrant. The novel won the Walter Honor Award, the Magnolia Award, and the South Asia Book Award and explores themes of family, love, and empowerment.

Citations in this study guide refer to the e-book edition released by Farrar Straus Giroux Books in 2017.

Content Warning: The source material contains depictions of racism and colorism.

Plot Summary

The story opens in Accra, Ghana, in 1965. Eight-year-old Sonia takes the lead in a swimming race at an exclusive British club, but her mother, Ranee, misunderstands the rules and pulls her out of the pool before she finishes the race. The furious girl breaks free from her mother’s arms and completes her lap when a rainstorm sends everyone else hurrying inside the club. When Sonia is 15 and her older sister, Tara, is 17, the Das family moves from London to New York. Their mother considers their new home in Flushing, Queens, unsafe because the neighborhood is predominantly Black, and her prejudice upsets Sonia. The 15-year-old hopes to gain more freedom and solitude in the United States, two things she only finds when writing in her diary or rereading her favorite novels. While Sonia finds empowerment in the written word, Tara finds empowerment in acting. She imitates different celebrities to gain confidence, and she decides to model herself after Marcia Brady from The Brady Bunch now that she’s living in the United States.

During their time in Flushing, Sonia feels as though her family is falling apart, and she holds her mother responsible. Ma frequently picks fights with her father, Baba, over money. One day, Ma discovers and reads Sonia’s diary, which causes even the sweet-tempered Tara to tell her mother that she was in the wrong. After the fight about the diary, Ma behaves more amicably toward Baba, although her relationship with Sonia continues to deteriorate. Baba secures a promotion, allowing the Das family to purchase a house in New Jersey. The sisters reluctantly say goodbye to their home in Flushing, Queens, and to the friends they’ve made among their Black neighbors. When Baba takes his daughters to Ridgeford High School to enroll them in classes, Sonia asks about the school’s prestigious drama program. She insists that Tara be given an audition even though the theater teacher doesn’t usually accept new seniors. Tara excels in her tryout, disappearing into the role of Maria from West Side Story and proving herself worthy of her name, which means “star.”

In 1976, Baba is killed in a hit-and-run accident while he is out cycling. At his shradh ceremony, Sonia defies Bengali tradition by shaving her head and reciting the prayers that are typically said by the eldest son of the deceased. Her mother and sister support her, and Ma decides that the Das family will stay in the United States. Six months later, Sonia and a handsome, brilliant Black student named Lou Johnson win a week-long vacation to Paris through an essay competition. During the trip, the two become close, and Sonia’s friendship with Lou helps her to begin writing again and finally allow herself to mourn Baba. Sonia and Lou begin dating, and they attend Princeton together.

Tara travels to Bangladesh to empty Baba’s ashes into the Ganges. While there, she reconnects with a young American-born Bengali man named Amit, whom she used to date. Amit accompanies Tara to the Das family’s old home, which they lost because of the Partition. The Muslim family who lives there now welcomes her like a relative. The experience helps Tara overcome her fear of becoming like her mother, and she kisses Amit. Tara and Amit marry and move to Flushing.

After Sonia and Lou graduate from Princeton, they elope, which causes Ma to stop speaking to her younger daughter. Three years later, a pregnant Sonia visits her mother. Even though she knows that Baba would embrace Sonia, Lou, and their new grandchild, Ma is unable to let go of the shame and disappointment she feels at the way her daughter goes against Bengali tradition, and she shuts her out of her home and her life.

A few years later, Sonia and her mother finally reconcile, thanks to the intervention of Sonia’s two-year-old daughter, Chantal. In 1998, Chantal, who is now 15, opens up to her parents and grandparents about how difficult it is for her when people treat her as though she isn’t Black enough or Bengali enough. This helps her grandmothers put aside their differences and treat each other like allies rather than rivals. During Chantal’s third year of high school, her cousin, Anna Sen, joins her at Carver School. Anna is Tara and Amit’s daughter, and she grew up in Mumbai. At first, Anna struggles to adjust to American high school life, but she gains confidence after she uses her sewing skills to transform the girls’ stark locker room into an oasis where girls who need privacy feel comfortable. During her senior year at Carver School, Chantal starts dating the affluent and white Martin Larsen. She thinks that they are too different to have a long-term relationship, but that changes when he covers for her to his parents after his prized Porsche is damaged on her watch.

The September 11 attacks deeply impact Ranee. Her newfound sense of patriotism inspires her to become an American citizen. For the first time since her husband’s death decades ago, she begins wearing colorful clothes again and makes new friends. With her family’s help, she finds a balance between American culture and Bengali traditions. After graduating from college, Anna works to protect women and endangered tigers in New Delhi. She moves back to New York in 2006, and Ranee arranges for her granddaughter to meet her kind and handsome Black neighbor, Darnell. Almost immediately, a connection sparks between the young people. Content that she is fulfilling her role as the guardian of her family members’ happiness, Ranee looks at a photograph of her husband and assures him that all is well.

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