Sarah's Reviews > A Step from Heaven

A Step from Heaven by An Na
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Feb 05, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: asian-american-rll-528, realistic-fiction

There is so much I would love to say about this wonderful book, but rather than writing a huge essay, I will simply touch on a couple of things.

Young Ju and her parents come to the United States from Korea in search of the American dream, yet as the young girl grows up (the story starts when she is about 4 years old and continues through early adulthood), she realizes that there are many obstacles in their way. An Na masterfully takes us through the life of this immigrant girl as she and her family struggle with language and cultural barriers, economic difficulties, and a search for one’s identity. All of the family’s dreams of a better life come crashing down around them as her father’s alcoholism and abusive behavior come to a head. Young Ju, her brother, and her mother each deal with this in their own ways, trying to survive the torrents of Apa’s (Father’s) rage.

The theme of the story, that of a family torn apart by the abuse of a controlling, alcoholic parental figure, transcends cultural lines. This is a problem that is universal and is not limited to any particular ethnic group. Yet in the case of this story, the culture of the family is an important factor. The father’s alcoholism and need for control is heightened as he feels his grip on things in this new country slip farther and farther from his grasp. With a lack of higher education, understanding of American culture and knowledge of the English language, he cannot be the man in charge of his family as is his tradition. We see this contrast between his home behavior and his experience outside of his domain when he takes Young Ju to get her green card renewed when she is about to turn thirteen years old. Out in the American, English-speaking world, he cannot take care of things himself due to his lack of English and ends up needing to rely on his daughter for communication. This is one of the few times that we (and Young Ju) see Apa’s helplessness. As his alcoholism spins further out of control, his behavior becomes more and more erratic and destructive—to his family and himself—causing his outside-world behavior and his home behavior to jumble together. Alcohol takes over where his pride once stood.

A note on An Na’s literary style in this book: I really loved how through her use of language we can “hear” Young Ju’s voice as she journeys from a very small girl of a bout four up through adulthood. I can imagine the little girl talking about colors not as specifically named hues (like “blue” or “purple”), but as ideas. For example, on page 26 upon seeing her Uncle Tim for the first time, she does not say that her Uncle Tim has blue eyes. Instead she describes them as “daytime, sun-is-shining, sky-color eyes.” Then, on page 28, when Gomo (her aunt) offers her an American drink that she says everyone here loves, the young narrator can only describe it, not having had any experience with this drink called, “Ko-ka Ko-la.” She is not sure what to make of this “cup with dirty black water inside.” She notes that it has bubbles and perhaps it is “a drink from the sea.” When she takes a sip of it, she states that the beverage “bites the inside of my mouth and throat like swallowing tiny fish bones.” She can’t imagine how anyone would love this drink. When she is told to finish drinking it, she unhappily takes “a big swallow of the hurting drink.” I can just picture this little girl saying this, talking in descriptions, especially if she has no concrete word for it like “fizzy.” This is just an example of the imaginative use of language that the author uses to give her narrator “voice.”
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message 1: by Leane (new) - added it

Leane Thanks for your inclusion of examples from the text. This sounds like a beautifully written book with unique descriptions, particularly from an immigrants point-of-view who may have not experienced things that we have such as Coke. I think it is interesting that An Na includes two types of conflicts: those that Young Ju would most likely encounter being an immigrant such as language barriers, but also dealing with alcoholism, an issue that anyone can encounter. I'm interested to read this book and discover how Young Ju deals with all of these issues.


Sarah Yes, and this is only the tip of the iceberg. There were so many other nuances that I wanted to touch on, but was driving myself crazy trying to include them all in a nice, concise way without writing a huge paper!


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