Author: An Na
Genre: Contemporary YA
Source: Purchased for class
As little Young Ju's plane leaves Korea and climbs high into the sky, she thinks she is headed for heaven. In a way, so do her parents, who believe that America will offer them big opportunities and a more heavenly lifestyle. But life is much harder than they anticipate, and both of Young Ju's parents must work multiple jobs just to make ends meet while they share a house with relatives. Disillusioned and ashamed, Young Ju's father tries to drown the harsh realities of his life in liquor, eventually descending into a pit of alcoholism that turns him emotionally and physically abusive. Though the family as a unit doesn't adapt well, Young Ju adjusts quickly and soon excels in school. But the shame of her family's poverty and her father's worsening alcoholism leads to several lies and cover-ups that prevent her from ever fully embracing her new life. Caught between two cultures and increasingly isolated by the growing tension within her family, Young Ju eventually finds herself at a crossroads, forced to make a decision that will likely tear her family apart.
I thought that Na did an excellent job describing the experience of immigrating from Korea to America from the eyes of a child. There are certain concepts that are very cute through the perspective of someone so young, such as mistaking America for Heaven. Then there is the interesting aspect of looking at tough issues through the lens of a child as she is growing up in an unfamiliar culture. While the family featured in the book was from an Asian decent, I feel that a lot of the themes and issues dealt with in the book could be important to readers from anywhere, particularly other immigrants or even anyone who has ever moved from one place to somewhere very different. So many issues were brought up in this book that it's hard to know where to begin...maybe just listing them and then attacking one or two when something strikes me...okay...yeah...So there were many things of interest in this novel from alcoholism, moving, abusive parents, male dominance/sexism, being poor, a sibling joining a gang, etc. There was actually a lot more, but I think I'm going to stick to some of those mentioned.
I felt that each character was really relevant to the story. Sometimes you get a ton of filler characters that don't seem to have a purpose other than to take up space and pages, but this was not one of those books. All the characters go through significant changes and developments that are an integral part of the story and theme of the novel. Though all characters are important, the one you get the best feel for is Young Ju...the narrator. There is a ton of emphasis on her development as a young girl and as an American citizen.She is a very smart and confident character, and she has a very strong personality which is carried throughout the novel. All the characters are well defined, but I wish there would have been a tad more development between each character's relationship to the others. Friends are almost non-existent in this book and when the focus is so strongly on family, it would be nice to have more of a focus on their bonds than just on how Young Ju viewed them. I think it was more of a short page count than a lack of intent on the author's part that allowed for the neglect of the bonds between characters, but for the amount of pages, this book did pack a punch.
I thought that there was a few really cool literary devices and techniques that made this book super original and interesting. One of them was they way that Na used dialect and inflection when each character was speaking. You really get a sense of the culture shock that the family goes through. It's hard to imagine what it's like to be in a country that doesn't speak your language unless you've had that experience. Let me tell you, it's awful. You feel like the world is moving so fast and you're just trudging along at a snail's pace. The world is all confusion. Now think of going through this as a child. It's already a big scary world full of things you don't know, now add in a cultural and language barrier. SO difficult. I loved this book because you get to see all of these hardships through the eyes of a kid and it really makes for good literature.
There are tons of things that made a lot of this book pretty hard for me. I hate child abuse or abuse of any kind in my reading. I understand that YA literature can be dark. The teenage years can be some of the blackest, most confusing and terrifying in your life, especially when paired with really tough issues like abuse, death, drugs,etc. I understand the need for material that encompasses all of these things so that teens can better cope with their own problems at home. But still...There's a huge difference in the experience I get when I'm reading a book and there is a good fight scene where the narrator gets there ass kicked as opposed to a scene where Dad beats the crap out of Mom while the children are crying on the floor. It makes for deep and intellectual literature for sure, but at the same time, is it enjoyable? Well...not for me...call me weak, or soft...but I just don't like reading about that kind of thing. I'd rather read about a character who is dealing with the abuse years later so then I know that they at least got over it. Otherwise I leave the book feeling down about the whole world and all of the evil in it...not something that I personally look for in my literature.