I am in a reading slump. A terrible one. I keep picking up books and saying never mind. After doing this with about 4 in a row, I decided I needed to do the old book roulette from the Random Reading Challenge and just read whatever it came up with. I have about 100 books on my TBR shelves near my computer, so I let Random.org give me a number. It came up with A Step From Heaven by An Na, a thin book that I need to read for the Printz Project anyway. I figured it was short, so I could get through it.
A Step From Heaven is about a girl named Young Ju who immigrates with her parents to America from Korea. The narrative goes from the time she is 4 until she’s about to leave for college. She deals with a lot of things that new immigrants deal with – language barrier, culture shock, etc – but she also has to live with an abusive father and a very dysfunctional family.
At first, I had a hard time reading this. Not only was I in a slump, but there were no dialog tags, no quote marks. It was all very vague, and I was not familiar with Korean words such as Apa and Ummha (Father and Mother). Add to that the fact that the book starts very impressionist because the memories come from a four-year-old’s sketchy point of view, and I was confused a lot. Slowly, though, as Young Ju grows older and her memory firms up, I began to understand the book more. Words spoken in English were given quotation marks, while those spoken in Korean (though written in the text in English, of course) never had any quotation marks. I realized the quotes were being used to distinguish which language was spoken, and it made much more sense to me after that.
This was a very well-written book. The childhood memories felt just like they were from a child, without being condescending or false or too detailed. I keenly felt the struggles that Young Ju went through. More than that, I became very concerned about the story of a side character – Young Ju’s younger brother, Joon Ho. His role in the book isn’t huge, but the glimpses of him made me ache with sadness and anger. He’s treated like a king as a child because he’s the firstborn boy, so he grows up spoiled and wasted. Na only gives us glances at this – rotting front teeth in a photograph, a little boy peeing in the street, a young teenager skipping school over and over – but it’s enough to know that that little boy, because he was treated as if he could do no wrong as a kid, was growing into a hoodlum. That sort of thing always makes me sad and very, very angry at parents. I hate when parents do that to their children. It’s worse than almost anything.
Ultimately, the book was hopeful, though. About 3/4ths of the way in, I wasn’t sure, and I’m not in the mood for super-depressing books right now, but I was satisfied with the end. It was well constructed. I’ve actually never read anything about Korean culture or Korean-American culture, so it was an interesting experience for me.
A Step From Heaven won the Printz Award in 2002. It is well-deserved. I’m glad I stuck through those difficult opening chapters.