In this beautifully written first novel for young adults, An Na relates an authentic story of emigration from Korea to America through her protagonist Young Ju. Young Ju's memories are told through inner monologues as she tries to fathom the "whys" of her life: why is her baby brother expected to be president when she is "stronger and bigger"? Why did her family move to America if she is "to speak English only at school"? When her father (Apa) takes up drinking and lashes out violently she asks her mother (Uhmma) "why does he do that?" Young Ju's questioning attitude is seen as insolence by her parents who, on one hand, want a better life for their daughter yet hate to see her become swallowed up by American culture. Being "swallowed up" is a fear that Young Ju conquers early on. We first see Young Ju braving the waves as a four year old in Korea and then braving the suffocating poverty of her life in America. She does rise above the surface, excelling in school and with her mother's help she discovers why her father behaved so destructively.
As I work on my own childhood memoir, I find much to admire in An Na's book. Her language is concise, strong and many times poetic. In describing a moment after her father slaps her mother, she writes: "Apa leans close to Uhmma. Face to face. His eyes squint thin as paper…Uhmma takes away her hand. Blood drips down her chin. Her lips are broken grapes."
In another passage Young Ju finds power in the Korean word for America, "Mi Gook." She observes, "This is a magic word. It can make Uhmma and Apa stop fighting like some important person is knocking on the door."
I also enjoyed the chapter where Young Ju wins a certificate for having the highest grade point average in her ninth grade class. She wants to wait up for Apa, who clearly favors her brother, to come home from his janitorial job. Her mother tells her to leave the certificate next to the Korean newspaper so he would see it. The next morning, Young Ju describes her disappointment:
"When Apa finally does come home, he covers the entire coffee table with his newspaper. Underneath the scattered sheets, the certificate lies tossed aside like a useless piece of mail. I push away the newspaper and pick up my award...I look down at my name and begin to crumple the entire certificate, but a tiny black smudge catches my eye. For some reason, before I can think, I lift the certificate to my nose. Ammonia and bleach. An ache deep and wide as the sea threatens to drown my heart."
An Na was born in Korea and grew up in San Diego, California. She's a graduate of Amherst College and received her MFA in creative writing from Norwich University. I asked Ms. Na to talk about the benefits and drawbacks to using fiction for telling our personal histories. She commented on how often she sees writers approach difficult scenes in their stories, only to "draw back, i.e. father, daughter meet in the kitchen and start to fight and then daughter quickly leaves the room…the writer just begins to touch on the hard part and then can't push themselves to go there emotionally. Partly, they want to save their characters from harm, and partly, it's a need to save themselves from going to the dark places of their lives. Those are the times where you have to push the scene, push yourself, push the characters to engage and deal with the conflict."
In writing fiction, she says a clear benefit is that "you can create a scene that never really existed and then take a core of emotional truth from real life and play with it in a somewhat safe arena." She adds, "the drawback is that you might lose the string of what brought you to the story in the first place. The results are pretty obvious, the story or scene won't resonate with emotional clarity. In the end, it's what makes sense to the writer."
I also asked Ms. Na to comment on the ongoing water imagery that at one time buoys Young Ju and then at times threatens to annihilate her. She says, "I think about the ocean a lot. I was born near the ocean and lived all my life very close to the coast. For me, the sky and the ocean are always merging and reflecting the other. When I stand on the beach and look at the horizon, I experience a sense of openness and longing to know and explore more of this world and myself. In the novel, I wanted the sea and this idea of openness and possibility to be a way out for the family. A symbol of the way in which sky, heaven, exists here on earth."
Indeed, heaven is where four-year-old Young Ju thinks the family is flying to when they leave for Mi Gook. Instead, they land in America, land of fizzy drinks and where all the homes have blankets on the floor. But it is not heaven.
A Step from Heaven is an engrossing read that some readers may find challenging at first (the Korean words and character references may slow your reading pace down a bit). Those of us writing about "the dark places" of our lives will appreciate An Na's use of strong imagery that lingers in the mind and makes a fictional girl seem much more real.
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