Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal

How one man's jaunt to Nepal became a mission of mercy.

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    Little Princes
    By Conor Grennan
    William Morrow
    304 pp
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Two warnings: 1. Don’t read Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal in public unless you enjoy making a spectacle of yourself, wiping your eyes and blowing your nose every few pages; 2. Skip the middle photo insert until you’ve read the final page. My sole quibble with this book would be that the pictures – thoroughly appreciated! – need to appear at story’s end so as not to reveal too much too soon. Other than that, get ready to be mesmerized by a wildly emotional thrill ride.

At age 29, Conor Grennan quit his international public policy job with peripatetic intentions, ready to invest his “entire net worth on a trip around the world.” His first stop was a three-month volunteer stint in an orphanage in Nepal. He readily confesses that his lofty decision originated in earning bragging rights, as well as combating any forthcoming criticism about the “unrepentantly self-indulgent” nature of such a trip. He even formulated the perfect “selfless” response: “Well frankly, Mom, I didn’t peg you for somebody who hates orphans.”

Although Grennan learns that Nepal is in the middle of an endless civil war, he reasons that that’s just an exaggeration: “No organization was going to send volunteers into a conflict zone.” He knows next to nothing about the Nepalese language, history, customs, food. And, ironically, he lacks even “a single skill that ... would be applicable to working with kids” when he arrives in November 2004 at Little Princes Children’s Home (named after Saint-Exupéry’s “Le Petit Prince” by its French founder) in Godavari, a bus ride – and a world – outside Nepal’s capital of Katmandu.

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For three months, Grennan lives with, takes care of, teaches, and comes to deeply admire and love the 18 Little Princes – 16 boys and two girls. Eventually, he makes a shocking discovery: The children are not orphans. They are from the isolated northwest province of Humla – a stronghold of the Maoists, Nepal’s most extreme rebel army – and were taken from their parents by a human trafficker.

With a never-end­ing civil war, Maoist insur­gents resorted to abducting even the youngest children to repopulate their depleted forces. Desperate parents sold whatever they could to pay virtual strangers who promised to protect and educate their children away from war. Too often these strangers were child traffickers, selling the boys as domestic slaves, shipping the girls to brothels; Little Princes’s founder had rescued the 18 children from a powerful trafficker virtually above the law.

Grennan can’t imagine the horrors and tragedies these children – who are so quick to laugh and smile – must have survived. Soon they become “my” and “our” children. Their resilience, determination, and boundless love change the direction of Grennan’s life.

When he leaves for the rest of his world tour in January 2005 he promises to return. One year later, he eagerly lands back with his Little Princes for another three months. The joy of witnessing two of his Princes reunite with their mother is dampened by the discovery of seven additional trafficked, starving children in need of rescuing. But by now it’s April 2007 and Nepal is exploding in political turmoil. The country is not safe for foreigners and Grennan must leave. But before he goes he makes arrangements for the seven children to be moved to safety.

Three weeks later, while job hunting from his mother’s New Jersey home, Grennan receives “the e-mail … that changed everything”: “The seven children were gone.”

If you’ve never believed in miracles, this book could convince you otherwise. By September 2006 – with the matched determination of a fellow Little Princes volunteer, Farid Anit-Mansour – Grennan establishes his own nonprofit, Next Generation Nepal, named for “the lost generation of kids.” He raises enough funds to get back to Nepal and support his own children’s home. Not only will he search for his “seven needles in a haystack,” he will eventually risk life and limb to reunite his trafficked children with their faraway families. He’ll also somehow manage to find his soul mate, whom he woos, 21st-century e-style, from thousands of miles away.

Like the children he writes about, Grennan has boundless resilience and determination, in addition to self-effacing humor and tunnel-vision devotion. He’s also a good writer – considerably better than Greg Mortenson’s co-writer David Oliver Relin who penned runaway bestseller “Three Cups of Tea.” That’s promising news for Grennan’s beloved children, because a portion of the proceeds from the book’s hopefully spectacular sales will be donated to Next Generation Nepal.

Go buy multiple copies... invest in a miracle or two or more.

Terry Hong is the Smithsonian Institution’s BookDragon book blogger at bookdragon.si.edu.

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