A Step from Heaven by An Na is not a book to read if you’re looking for a feel good story. However, if you’re looking for a story that will perhaps open you eyes to the experience of people whose lives are very different from yours, this is a good book to start with. A Step from Heaven is the story of Young Ju and her family as they emigrate from Korea to America and try to make it in a world so different from theirs that at times they find it hard to cope. I write “they,” but really, it’s the adults who find it hard–impossible, at times. Young Ju really just wants to fit in and be a “real” American girl, and while that is ultimately really what her parents want for her, they still cling to the Korean way of doing things. Young Ju’s father loses himself in alcohol when he finds life in America too challenging. Young Ju’s mother, on the other hand, continues to work and work and work, to the point of total self-sacrifice, in order to make a life for her children. Lots of issues come into play in this story: alcoholism, as I’ve already mentioned; domestic violence and child abuse (be forewarned: while the episodes are not terribly graphic, they are there and quite emotional); a family infrastructure that all but crumbles under the weight of such terrible odds. However, An Na‘s writing makes this story beautiful, despite the bleakness of the story. This book is well deserving of the many awards it garnered, among which are the 2002 Michael L. Printz Award and a finalist spot in the 2001 National Book Awards.
Reading this book was painful to me at times. For one, it made me realize how difficult life can be for some people (maybe even some people I know). I do personally know a few immigrants whose lives, while not as bleak in some ways as Young Ju’s, are certainly not easy. It makes me wonder if I have been the friend to them that I should be. The most pressing problem, really, for Young Ju’s family is their poverty, so this leads me to wonder how many non-immigrant families I know who struggle in similar ways due to their lack of money. I think too often I expect books to be instructive, and sometimes I do create something out of nothing, but I don’t think this is the case with this book. I believe it does offer lessons to be learned. God help me to be more aware of the sufferings of others.
I don’t want to end this post on such a sorrowful note, though, because An Na‘s prose is really beautiful. One short chapter in the story in which Young Ju describes “some weekend mornings, not always, hardly even any, but some [when] , Apa [father] becomes the Blob” caused me to sigh and close the book with the thought, That’s about as near to perfection as a chapter in a novel can come. It’s such a heartbreaking story, and what makes the heartbreak even more profound is the fact that there are moments of happiness and peace, even in the heartbreak. And yes, even though there’s not much good that happens to Young Ju’s family, the story does finally end with a measure of hope. In the epilogue, which is titled “Hands,” an adult Young Ju describes her mother’s hands:
Uhmma [mother] said her hands were her life. But for us, she only wished to see our hands holding books. You must use this, she said and pointed to her mind. Uhmma’s hands worked hard to make sure our hands would not resemble hers.
It takes only a glance at our nails, our knuckles, our palms to know Uhmma succeeded. Joon and I both possess Uhmma’s lean fingers, but without the hard, yellowed calluses formed by years of abuse from physical labor. Our hands turn pages of books, press fingertips to keyboard buttons, hold pencils and pens. They are lithe and tender. The hands of dreams come true. (154)
I love that this story is full of subtlety. An Na knows how to gently, with seemingly little effort, drive home her point. I look forward to seeing what comes from this talented writer in the future. I give A Step from Heaven a Highly Recommended.