Thursday, August 2, 2012

A MILLION SHADES OF GRAY by Cynthia Kadohata

Kadohata, Cynthia. A Million Shades of Gray. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010. ISBN: 978-1-4424-2919-2. $6.99 US, $7.99 CAN.

To Y'Tin, elephant handling is more important than school. But his parents believe that he must attend, even though “as an elephant handler, he'd always have work.” His father always likes to consider what's “on the other hand.” At the beginning of the book, this is Y'Tin's most distressing problem; if only things had remained so!

Y'Tin's father runs jungle tracking missions for the American Special Forces stationed in Vietnam. To the Vietnamese in his village, the Americans were helpful, always keeping the North Vietnamese far enough away from the village for them to continue life with some semblance of normalcy. The author paints the Americans in a very positive light: they are polite about their cigarette butts, they treat the Dega people as equals, and they promise to come back if necessary. After a skirmish, an American soldier carries a dead villager on his own back all the way home through the jungle. But what unfolds after the Americans pull out is a different story. Y'Tin thinks to himself at one point, “Life had seemed safer when the Americans had been there.”

The story follows Y'Tin through the changes that occur in the village in the aftermath of what American history calls the Vietnam War (since in truth, the war began before we arrived and continued after we left). The readers get a glimpse into the changes in Vietnamese life, particularly for the Dega mountain people. Some changes are minor (like how the advent of a thermometer changes the villagers’ attitude towards weather), but other changes are tragic (such as the destruction and mass burial of nearly the entire village).

The book deals with mass death, guilt, friendship (and the effect of survival on friendship), and decision-making. None of the prose is graphic, and I doubt that the book would negatively scar anyone, but particularly sensitive 10-11 year old children might not be ready to understand these difficult issues. That being said, it's definitely well-positioned for school use. The end matter includes historical and cultural background information about the Dega people during and after the Vietnam War, a reading group guide, and discussion questions. The story is relevant in today's social studies classrooms, particularly if tied to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. As a teacher, I'm picturing interesting research projects regarding the question of what happens when an American military presence pulls out of a war-torn region. It would be too “easy” a read for my high schoolers, but I think they'd enjoy it, and with the right set up, I think it could make a great project or discussion starter even at the high school level, and most certainly at the middle school level.

Reviewed by Marisa Behan

1 comment:

  1. He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life. Muhammad Ali

    Basically, in Kadohata, Cynthia. A Million Shades of Gray it is set after the war in Vietnam. The Americans have pulled out of Vietnam, the West Vietnamese are invading the Southern Vietnamese, bombing and destroting villages. Y'Tin is an 13-year old boy who spends his time taking care of his elephant, Lady. The North Vietnamese are shooting Y'tin's village, forcing Y'tin's family to flee into the jungle. Held captive by the North Vietnamese, Y'tin is tied to a pole and flipped upside and made to dig the graves of other captured villagers, many of whom die at the hands of the North Vietnamese. He escapes by running into the jungle at night. Finally, he finds Lady. They travel together until they find Tomas, Y-Juen and the other elephants. Together, they walk to a refugee camp, where all three of them discover that their families are still alive. Lady escapes overnight and in the morning, and when Y-tin finds her, he realizes she has birthed a calf, a miracle because she had lost her first calf a few years earlier. At the end of the narrative, Y-tin tells Lady goodbye, realizing that she wants to be independent.
    The pace of the plot gradually grows in the book. It continually gives you action that you do not want to put it down. The plot gives an overview of the aftermath of the Vietnam war. Many people did not survive in the war. The people who fought in the war and Y'tin's father who is good tracker are heroes.
    Y'tin is brave and a good leader. He helps not just himself,but others,as well. He helps his elephant through dangerous situations. Lady and Y'tin have a bond that Tomas helped to form. Tomas gave advice to Y'tin so that Lady could listen to him and grow up into a man.
    I enjoyed this book so much that would recommend this book to anyone else. KadoHata is a good author and looks forward to reading more of her books. Her books give a lot of action and excitement.
    It was enjoyable because of the excitement and action that she put in the book. It would be "easy" for many high schoolers to understand.