Cynthia Kadohata's novel A Million Shades of Gray is set in the heart of South Vietnam in 1975 not long after the Americans have pulled out of the Vietnam War. The North and the Vietcong are on the move again. Villagers in the South flee to the jungles. Yet, this isn't a war story. It is a love story between a boy and an elephant.
At age 11, Y'Tin seeks to become the youngest elephant handler in the village. He trains daily with an elephant named Lady. By the time Y'Tin is 13 Y'Tin connects with Lady. He does not use the crude and cruel hook to force his elephant to respond to him. Instead, he patiently forms a connection. When scolded about not using a hook, Y'Tin replies, "But I want her to like me." Y'Tin's trainer, a 16 year old boy, uses a hook on his own elephant and keeps reminding Y'Tin that you don't want the elephant to like you, you want the elephant to respect you.
As Lady's sole handler, Y'Tin has indeed become the youngest handler in the village and has witnessed the death of her first calf, named Mountain. No human to their knowledge has ever been able to keep an elephant calf alive while in captivity. As Lady wallows in depression, she does not eat and begins to show signs of starvation. Y'Tin also forgoes food, and lays with Lady and her sorrow. Eventually, he begins to mush up food for her, and she takes it. The bond is forever forged.
What I like in the story is the author's ability to allow Y'Tin to change. Once settled in as Lady's handler he truly believes and wants to stay with her for as long as she lives. If that occurred, and that isn't unusual, that would make Y'Tin about 50 years old at the end of Lady's life. Only at that time would he consider leaving and perhaps opening an elephant training school someplace such as Thailand.
There is an ebb and flow of connection and disconnection between Y'Tin and Lady. The Vietcong storm Y'Tin's village which sends many fleeing into the jungle. Those captured are executed. Y'Tin and Lady are physically separated for days in all of the confusion. When Y'Tin finds Lady they reconnect and we learn that Lady is pregnant again.
Enter the wild herd of elephants.
Lady begins to follow and drift towards this wild herd of elephants repeatedly. Mostly, Lady wanders off to find the herd as Y'Tin sleeps at night. We learn she isn't trying to abandon Y'Tin, but she is looking to protect her calf which will be born soon. It will not survive in captivity. It needs the wild. It needs to be free. These physical connections and disconnections lead us to the touching conclusion of the story.
When the calf is born, Lady makes a decision. She returns with her calf to Y'Tin. She stays. Even though she has the instinct that her calf would be in danger, she acknowledges the loving bond between her and Y'Tin.
Y'Tin knows better. He knows he has to change his plans. He knows he has to let Lady go so she can raise her calf. She won't leave though until he raises his hook.
Her reluctance to go is heartbreaking for both Y'Tin and Lady, but it saves the life of the calf.
When teaching "Love Story" to my middle school creative writing classes, many giggle and grin. They believe "Love Story" can only mean the smoochy-smoochy love between people. This is a wonderful story which illuminates just one of the million different shades of love.
Recommended, especially for younger middle school readers (6th grade), you have a great story for your bookshelves which teaches that love isn't demonstrated by what you say, it is demonstrated by what you do.