Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan: Summary & Characters

Instructor: Ian Matthews

Ian Matthews has taught composition, creative writing, and research at the college level for more than 5 years; he's also been an Instructional Designer for more than 3 years. He holds a Master's of Education in Learning and Technology from Western Governor's University and a Master of Arts in Writing and Publishing from DePaul University.

Koly, the protagonist of Gloria Whelan's 'Homeless Bird,' is thirteen years old, and she's getting married. This National Book Award winner tells the story of Koly struggling against the forces of culture and tradition.

An Arranged Marriage

Koly, the protagonist of Homeless Bird, is a thirteen-year-old girl living in India. In her culture, that's the age where girls tend to get married, so Koly's not surprised when her mother tells her that Koly's dad is trying to find her a husband. Hers will be an arranged marriage, where the parents of the bride and groom negotiate and decide on who their children will marry.

The boy Koly's dad finds is named Hari Mehta. Koly and her family head to Hari's house for the wedding, but Hari isn't looking so good. His family says it's just the flu. They consider postponing the wedding, but it ends up happening. Koly's mother gives her a really nice pair of silver earrings as part of her dowry, the price a bride's parents pay to marry an eligible young man, but Koly holds onto them for now.

To the Ganges

Hari's mom is very mean to Koly, giving her chores all day long. Koly adjusts to her new life and family though. Eventually she finds out that Hari doesn't have the flu at all, it's tuberculosis, and he's on his last legs. Hari's parents were gung-ho to find him a bride so they could use the dowry to take a trip to the Ganges River, whose waters they believe will heal Hari's disease.

Koly heads to the Ganges with Hari and his parents. They make it to the river, but its waters don't have the effect the parents hope for. Hari soon dies, and Koly and Hari's parents are devastated. Koly is especially sad -- as a thirteen-year-old widow, her life is essentially over. Nobody will ever want to marry her, so she'll never have children and a family of her own. She returns home with Hari's parents.

The Thirteen-Year-Old Widow

Back home, Mrs. Mehta gets meaner and meaner. She assigns Koly more chores and nitpicks everything she does. Hari's dad and sister are very nice, though. His dad teaches Koly how to read, and Koly bonds with Hari's sister, Chandra. Koly does get revenge on Hari's mother by behaving mischievously, but she shapes up when Chandra marries and leaves the house.

Mr. Mehta dies suddenly one day, and Hari's mother decides there's nothing left for her in that town. She wants to move to Delhi to live with her brother, and she says she'll bring Koly along. To help pay for the trip, Koly gives her mother-in-law the silver earrings. They board the train for Delhi, but when the train stops in Vrindavan, a city known for its many widows, Mrs. Mehta gives Koly the slip. Koly is left totally alone.


Koly has to figure out what to do pretty quickly. After living a short time on the streets, she finds a rickshaw driver named, Raji, to help her. He takes her to a widows' house, where several other widows live. Koly starts to make a life for herself by working at the bazaar, where she discovers a talent for stitching. She makes amazing quilts that everybody loves, and she's finally happy.

She also bonds with Raji over this time. They spend time together after they get off work, and she teaches him to read. He tells her he's saving up to one day be able to quit driving a rickshaw and farm for a living, and he asks her to go along as his wife. She's not so sure.

A Room of Her Own

Now that she's finally made something of herself on her own, Koly is reluctant to leave it behind for another guy. She likes embroidering, and she likes her life in the city. Raji heads to his farm without Koly, disappointed.

But Raji doesn't give up. He builds Koly a room of her own -- she can still embroider, and she can still spend time with him. Koly finally accepts his offer. She moves to the farm, makes a new quilt to celebrate, and works on her embroidery from home.

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Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan: Summary & Characters Quiz

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After Koly is abandoned in Vrindavan in Homeless Bird, which character comes to her rescue?

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