Na, An. 2001. A Step from Heaven. Asheville, NC: Front Street. ISBN 1886910588
This is a story of survival. Young Ju is a Korean immigrant whose family left Han Gook to come to America (specifically California) for a better life. Young Ju is suspended between adopting American ways and keeping her Korean heritage alive. Young Ju's family is not what it appears on the outside. Her father is abusive and an alcoholic. Her mother is obedient but strong. Young Ju is trying to cover up her reality and her brother is rebelling against everything. What becomes of this family makes a compelling story of how much a family can endure and overcome.
This young adult novel is not just about a Korean family coming to America. It is a novel about how families cover up the truth and pretend that everything will be OK when their world is falling all around them. Young Ju's family is trying to survive moving to a new country without the benefit of knowing the language or customs before coming. They must find their own way.
The plot is absolutely believable. Even for readers that are native born Americans, the issues this family faces are universal. Kids hide where they live; mothers hide bruises left by drunk fathers; friends don't know each other as they think they do.
Each chapter is named and could be read as a stand alone story. The title of the book is also the name of an early chapter in which Young Ju's father explains that America "is a step from heaven" (28).
I enjoyed how Na used Korean words sprinkled through the story. In the early chapters, there are more words in Korean, but as Young Ju learns English, Na includes fewer Korean words. The parents still speak in Korean, but the new generation (Young Ju and her brother) do not. This adds to the believability of the story.
When Young Ju first goes to school, it took me a minute to realize that what Na was writing was English, but it was filtered through Young Ju's ears. She heard, "Ah ri cal, co mo ve he" when the "witch teacher" said, "All right class. Come over here." (31). She also refers to crayons as "color sticks" (32). I think this is an accurate description to a person who has never seen crayons.
The first sign of abuse shows up relatively early in the book. "I do not see Apa's hand. It is too fast. I only hear the slap, loud as breaking glass" (37). Young Ju's father has just slapped her mother for wanting too much. The more frustrated Apa gets with his life in America, the more beatings his wife endures. Apa occasionally hits the children, and Young Ju finally reaches a point to save her family, which becomes a turning point in the novel. "Please...send help....My father is killing my mother" (141). I wondered how many children make this kind of call every day to protect themselves or their family.
I found this novel to be beautifully written even with the horrific abuse. The ending is hopeful for Young Ju's family. I think teen readers will be relieved that sometimes atrocious situations do end happily ever after.Review excerpts
BOOKLIST (starred review): "This isn't a quick read, especially at the beginning when the child is trying to decipher American words and customs, but the coming-of-age drama will grab teens and make them think of their own conflicts between home and outside. As in the best writing, the particulars make the story universal."
SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: "Each of the chapters in this emotionally succinct novel might be read as a short story, although the plot-the acclimation of one young girl to a new culture and to her own family-is steady and at times suspenseful."
*Read Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club ISBN 0399134204.
*Have a class discussion about local services available to teens to help them if they are in similar situations. Where can they go that is safe? Who can they call (anonymously?) for help? What should they do if they suspect a friend is being abused? How can they stop the cycle?
*Create a "Getting to Know Our School" brochure that gives pictures of important places, with the accompaning English word. This might help new students (ESOL) become more familiar with the school as well as teaching them the correct words.