A Step from Heaven is An Na‘s first novel. Published in 2001, the book has received a lot of praise in reviews as well as winning the 2002 Printz Award (for excellence in young adult literature). The reason I like this book (and have added it to my CLW line up) is that the story shows the character’s evolution as she works to become a stronger, more empowered individual.
Young Ju lives in Korea in a lovely house near the sea with her parents and her grandmother. Everything changes for Young Ju when Uhmma and Apa start talking about Mi Gook. Apa stops hurting Uhmma and scaring Young Ju and his mother. Mi Gook is a magic word for the Park family. Until Young Ju realizes that Mi Gook doesn’t mean heaven like she thought–instead it means moving far away to a strange place called America where nothing is as magical (or easy) as the family had thought it would be.
The novel starts when Young Ju is four, before she knows the word “Mi Gook” and is being introduced to the water and waves. The story ends when Young Ju is about to start college. In between, Na weaves together a series of vignettes to show what life is like for the Parks in America. The story is about the immigrant experience, but even more than that it’s about family–very specifically: it’s about this family, the Parks.
Stylistically, this novel is a dynamo. Na incorporates Korean words and phrases into the novel from the get go. With a couple of exceptions, she doesn’t translate within the text. This does two things: on one hand it makes the novel feel more real in that the narrative (the story is narrated by Young Ju who becomes a more reliable narrator as she gets older) is not interrupted by translations meant to benefit the reader. On the other hand, it gets a little confusing because no translations also means no context for the words. That led to a bit of a stumble when I first started the novel and couldn’t decided if Uhmma meant “grandmother” or “mother” (it means “mother” by the way, “Apa” is father and Halmoni means “grandmother). Eventually I had to look up the words online and reread the first couple of pages–but after that it was smooth sailing.
More impressive, and equally effective, is the way that Na subtly alters her prose as Young Ju ages and becomes more familiar with English. The novel is written in the first person, present tense. The beginning of the story told in short, poetic fragments. Even the beginning chapter/vignettes are shorter than those at the end. The sentences get longer (arguably more complex) through the course of the novel.
Na also maintains both Korean and English throughout the novel. Korean appears in phrases throughout and as dialogue without quotations marks. (English dialogue is presented conventionally which makes it easy to note when the characters switch back and forth.)
As the Park family tries to cope with the hardships of American life it becomes clear that their family might not be strong enough to take all of the pressure. By the end of the novel though, after both Young Ju and Uhmma face some dramatic changes, readers leave with the sense that–after so long–the Parks are finally on their way to that elusive American dream.
Possible Pairings: The Secret Side of Empty by Maria E. Andreu, Drown by Junot Diaz, North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley, The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, Butterfly Yellow by Thanhha Lai