Monday, May 16, 2011

Book Study: A Step From Heaven

A Step From Heaven

A Step From Heaven , by An Na

Winner of the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Fiction for the year 2002.

The Author:
An Na was born in Korea, and grew up in San Diego, CA. A former middle school teacher of English and History, An Na now writes full-time and lives in Vermont. She earned her degree from Amherst College, and received her MFA from Norwich University.

A Step From Heaven was An Na’s debut novel. Since then, she has written two more books: The Fold and Wait For Me. All three books feature Korean protagonists who are growing up in America. Wait For Me was named a Junior Library Guild Selection book.

The Novel:
A Step From Heaven received numerous accolades during the year of its publication. Aside from the Printz Award, it was named a finalist for the National Book Award and is identified as one of the Best Books of the Year by the ALA, New York Times, and Publisher’s Weekly.

In A Step From Heaven, the author adeptly takes us through the life of Young Ju Park. It begins when she is four years old, when her family makes the decision to move to Mi Gook (the United States) and follows her life until she graduates from high school and gets ready to leave for college.

An Na uses a series of vignettes to take us through the most salient and poignant moments of Young Ju’s life.  By utilizing this structure, the author zooms into the most defining moments and is able to cover a very broad period of time.

Young Ju’s father, Apa, is a frustrated man who is prone to alcohol and anger. When their visa documents arrive, he is excited about the prospects of living in Mi Gook.  The draw of the American dream is vivid in his eyes, and provides a string of hope for his family to improve their lives.  Very early in the story, we are already introduced to Apa’s temper, and his behavior of coming home late, drunk and being abusive to his wife, Uhmma.

While the specter of Apa’s cruelty and their fear of him is prevalent throughout the novel, we find several touching and, often times, funny moments that define Young Ju and who she is to become. In these moments, An Na utilizes beautiful words to express what Young Ju learns from that particular experience:

  • The first day of school where Young Ju can barely understand what the teacher tells her, nor can the teacher understand her.  There she has her first taste of Go-do-fish (Goldfish crackers).

  • After the arrival of her little brother Joon Ho, she finds that she is no longer the baby of the family. She is put to task to watching over her little brother sleeping on the couch, to make sure he doesn’t roll off.  Young Ju learns on page 40, I reach down and pull a bow off my shoe. I am not a baby anymore.

  • The moment when Young Ju’s visa must be renewed, during their visit to the immigration office, she realizes that she understands more than her father ever can. There she realizes that her father will not go beyond what he already has in his life. On page 89, Young Ju observes,  In that moment, when the papers pass from his hands to mine, our eyes meet and I know. His will always be a face washed and dressed by sun.

  • The moment when their father plays with them as "The Blob," it is the one moment that they are not afraid of their father and that they are able to feel his love.  On page 59, Because when the Blob comes and wraps us tight in his arms, holds us close we can hardly breathe, that is when we can finally put our arms around him.
Many of the vignettes are poignant and painful, most especially when they deal with Apa’s cruelty toward them. Young Ju and Joon Ho are not spared his anger and abuse.

Throughout the years, Uhmma, suffers at the hand of her husband, and works two jobs to help support their family. Apa, jumps from job to job, and eventually winds up becoming a late night cleaning person at a law office.  Uhmma provides inspiration to her children, and is the only source of light to them.
In the end, Apa decides to return to Korea. To Young Ju’s relief, Uhmma decides that they are staying behind in Mi Gook. This is the turning point for their family, and all the hard work Uhmma put in pays off. By this time, however, Young Ju is almost finished with high school.  They move to their first home, just weeks before Young Ju leaves for college.

My Thoughts:
An Na presents this heart-breaking, but inspiring story with beautiful, elegant prose. She uses short sentences, keeping the narrative extremely tight.  She presents Young Ju’s voice from that of a child to pre-adulthood, without ever sounding childish.  After each reading, I found myself wanting to write and experiment with ways to present a young character without resorting to the clichés that describe a child’s voice.

On a personal level, this story is very relevant to me as my family migrated from the Philippines to the United States in 2002.  This could very well be my daughter’s story, sans the violence, of course. Our family was lucky. We did not endure the kind of physical hardship Young Ju’s family did. However, our beginnings in the United States were just as humble and difficult.

As a writer, however, this story has left me vibrating with excitement to try something new.  I have always written from a western perspective, never feeling the compulsion to write something from my culture’s point of view. I have resisted writing my own coming to “Amerika” story.
This novel has made me re-think that.  I don’t know what I’m going to do just yet, but when I finish working on my current WIP, I am planning to try my hand at short story with a distinctly Filipino twist.
Well, we’ll see how that goes.

First line: “Just to the edge, Young Ju. Only your feet. Stay there.”
Last line: “We continue our walk along the beach.”

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