Thursday, August 2, 2012
A MILLION SHADES OF GRAY by Cynthia Kadohata
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