Week 13: Contemporary Realistic Fiction
Books: A Step from Heaven by An Na & Dreamland by Sarah Dessen
These were two of the better books this term, I have to say. The topics covered were definitely not happy ones, but I appreciated the way each of the books unflinchingly presented them.
A Step from Heaven is about a Korean girl (Young Ju Park) and her family, and their immigration to the United States when she was a young girl, and subsequent struggle to make a go of it in their new world. Well, it's about more than that, yes, but that's the starting point.
While still in Korea, Young Ju thought that the United States was like Heaven, but was told it was more like a "Step from Heaven", hence the title. Young Ju is the narrator of this story, and while An Na's writing is deliberately spare, what is said gives the reader a good sense of the difficulties experienced by the Park family.
The family struggles to maintain a delicate balance between holding on to their Korean culture and attempting to assimilate into their new culture. Young Ju's father, unable to cope, descends into alcoholism, and becomes increasingly violent towards his wife. Young Ju has figured out that doing well in school will help her get to college and out of reach of her father. Ashamed and afraid, she hides her home and family from even her closest friends, preferring to keep the different parts of her life separate. The book ends with Young Ju calling the police to report her father as he's severely beating her mother; he gets arrested, and the mother is angry at Young Ju. The father returns to Korea, but Young Ju, her mother, and her brother stay in the United States. The reader is left with a sense that the remaining family members will be OK, and will eventually piece their lives back together.
I think these issues transcend culture and place. There are many families who present an "all is well" front to the rest of the world, while hiding alcoholism and domestic violence behind closed doors. Also, the book uses Korean words from the very beginning, but doesn't have a glossary or any explanations of what the words mean. In some ways, it was frustrating...much like what Young Ju experiences when she encounters English. Gradually, it sorts itself out for both the reader and Young Ju, leaving the reader with a sense of understanding.
Dreamland is a story about a girl (Caitlin) whose sister, Cass, basically walks away from their family on Caitlin's birthday...and the resulting family trauma, which ends in Caitlin being abused by her boyfriend. That's the long story shortened.
When Cass leaves (telling her family via a note), the remaining family goes into a tailspin. Well, the mom, anyhow. She's a real piece of work...my guess is that much of her own identity was somehow linked with Cass's, and how Cass did reflected on the mom as well. Caitlin, unaccustomed to being the focus of attention, reacts by trying to do something that Cass (the perfect daughter) hadn't--she tries out for and makes the cheerleading squad. (Of course her mom is ecstatic, but is still missing Cass)
As a cheerleader, Caitlin (of course) starts going to parties and hanging out with a different crowd. It's at one of these parties that she hooks up with Rogerson Biscoe, who is a Bad Boy (of course he is, and of course she does). He deals drugs on the side, and on the night she meets him, she goes along for some of his deliveries.
Her life begins to take a downward turn; she starts taking drugs herself, and skipping classes & cheerleading practices, while lying to her parents about where she is and what she's doing (or not doing, as the case may be). It gets worse one night when she doesn't meet Rogerson as planned, and he ends up hitting her in the face. The violence escalates, and soon Caitlin is withdrawing from her friends, family, and normal life, while starting to wear long sleeves (even though the weather is warmer) and increasing her drug use. Caitlin rationalizes his behavior by saying that she loves him, and he loves her. In the end, her mother witnesses Rogerson beating on Caitlin and calls the Police...Caitlin goes to rehab, and when she comes home, the reader is left hopeful that all will be well in Caitlin's world.
The book is one that may or may not make sense to the teens who read it. They may think, "Well, for God's sake, Caitlin should've known better, and should have left him the very first time he hit her." Well, 'should have' is really easy to say when you aren't the one in the position, I think. I know. I was, when I was in my early 20's. This could've been my story, except I didn't take the drugs, and I didn't live at home. Before it happened, I totally subscribed to the "If a guy hits me, I'm gone" school of thought. While it was happening, I remember being very confused and not quite understanding what in the heck was going on. Luckily for me, I didn't end up dead...but it was literally 2 seconds away one night, when he was hopped up on who-knows-what. That was 20 years ago this year, and sometimes I still wonder if I'll ever be fully healed from it all. It all comes down to this: in the book, Caitlin's family and friends say they should've seen the signs, should've intervened sooner, should've done something to save her; in truth, she had to want to be helped, saved, whatever. The end is hopeful, yes, but it's only the beginning of a really long haul back to herself.