In twelve-year-old Leela's rural village in India in 1918, tradition is all-important. A child of privilege in a Brahman household, Leela is married at age nine and is getting ready to move into her husband's family's house when he is killed by a rattlesnake. Suddenly widowed, the young girl is sentenced by culture to a "living death." Allowed to wear only the drabbest of clothing and forced to have her head shaved, Leela must "keep corner," being confined and isolated in her own home for a full year, and doomed thereafter to a barren existence, shunned by society and forbidden from ever enjoying a husband and children of her own. Fortunately, Leela's brother Kanubhai convinces the family to allow her to have a tutor during her year of confinement. Saviben, the progressive principal of the small local school, comes to the house every few days, and, in addition to helping Leela advance in academic subjects, encourages her to read the newspaper and observe every detail of her immediate surroundings so she can reflect on and write about them. With the help and support of Saviben and Kanubhai, Leela, who had never been so inclined, becomes an accomplished student. More importantly, she develops a world view and a sense of her place in the context of a wider experience. When her year of keeping corner is fulfilled, Leela has grown to the point to where she is able to successfully reason with her father, persuading him to allow her to take the examinations that may provide her with the opportunity to advance her education in the city. If she passes, she will be able to escape the stifling mandates of India's centuries-old caste system and pursue a career, taking her place among the pioneers who are moving the country forward in a changing world.
Published in 2007, Kashmira Sheth's Keeping Corner is historically accurate and provides a rich and palpable sense of place. Leela's growth into maturity and her struggle for her rights as a woman under the long-established, rigid caste system parallels that of her country, as India strives, with the leadership of her beloved Mohandas Gandhi, to free herself from the yoke of British imperialism. Keeping Corner explores themes of human rights, freedom, and coming of age. It is an exceptionally valuable addition to the canon of young adult literature for the insight it provides about a time, place, and culture that is not frequently written about, and for its examination of tradition, and the difficulty of getting societies to abandon old ideas in favor of ones more modern and hopefully humane.