Thursday, January 19, 2012

YA Book Review: A Step from Heaven

I found An Na's A Step from Heaven while revising curriculum for the Common Core with colleagues.  We're pouring through the new text and materials and this novel about a Korean family's acculturation into American life catches my eye--after doing a little research through the stellar reviews online I thought maybe this is something to build into the curriculum?

A relatively short read at a 160 pages, the writing gripped me immediately.  Told from the first-person perspective of the daughter, Young-Ju, the novel begins when Young-Ju is a toddler and on the beach with a parent.  The writing (the thinking of the narrator) is in the language of a Korean toddler--as a reader I had to work a bit to keep up as there are Korean names and references to grandfather or father that I had to learn, and the images, attention span, and curiosity of Young-Ju as a toddler also keeps you focused.

Cleverly, Na alters the writing style and level as Young-Ju ages.

As a reader, you settle in to a rhythmic writing style at the same time you come to like and respect Young-Ju...and sour on her father.

Which brings up a very important consideration for this book--do you hand it to a student or do you just keep it on your shelf and if they self-select it, great...or do you keep it off your classroom shelf?  I raise the point because one of the central themes in the novel is abuse.  In addition to the father's (Apa) alcohol abuse, he beats the hell out of his wife and both children.  Bruised, battered, and at one moment perhaps fighting one's life, Apa's wife and two kids stay together with him as a family.

We witness Apa lose control not only of his temper and hands, but also his jobs and family--he physically leaves his wife for another front of the children.

Yet through it all, Young-Ju's mother (Uhmma) still stands by her husband.  He is her husband and she is his wife--and that's it.

Just when I am ready not only to turn the page on Apa, and perhaps find him myself and shake sense into him, Uhmma shows her children pictures from better times.  One picture is of a young man, smiling, laughing, and holding a baby down the incoming tide of the ocean.  Uhmma points out that that is Young-Ju and her father...the strong memory that Young-Ju has of that moment has always contained her grandfather as the man holding joyously her in the waves--but she was wrong, it was her father.

Somehow, Na manages to soften the reader's perspective on Apa--somehow I pity him, somehow I want him to get help and be back with his family.

I don't know how Na did, but it was a beautiful and artful twist to the conclusion of the novel.

Highly recommended for any adult--I'll leave it up to you and the circumstances of your community to decide whether or not to keep this on your classroom bookshelf.  Honestly, it is tastefully done--and the moments of spousal and child abuse are brief but sharp--but I do think it warrants a healthy discussion to determine how you would offer this as an option to your students, and at what age--definitely high school appropriate, and I am inclined to say it is 8th grade appropriate, but I do think it is right on that edge.

Minjae Lee - Artist

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