Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Reading Through History: Same Sun Here by Silas House and Neela Vaswani (2012)

Like Dear Mr. Henshaw and P.S. Longer Letter Later, Same Sun Here is an epistolary novel set in 2008, which is told entirely in correspondence between two randomly assigned pen pals - Meena, an Indian immigrant living in New York City, and River, who lives in Kentucky, where his father is a coal miner. Though different in many ways, Meena and River find that living beneath the same sun gives them lots in common - including their love for their grandmothers, their love of writing, and their willingness to open their lives to one another. River turns to Meena for support when mountaintop removal threatens his hometown, and Meena, in turn, confides in River about her family’s illegal living arrangement and their efforts to become citizens. Ultimately, though they never meet face to face in the book, the two become best friends, demonstrating the ideal that our differences can bring us together rather than keep us apart.

For the most part, reading this book was really enjoyable. I have always loved stories told through documents and letters, and I like the deep level of character development that comes from this format. The characters know nothing about each other, so every letter gives a little more insight into their unique personalities, which helps the reader get to know them, too. I also learned a lot about immigrant culture in New York, rent control, mountaintop removal, Appalachian culture, and Indian language, food, and customs. It was interesting to see how the introduction of each new idea helped to shape and reshape Meena’s opinion of River, and his of her.

My criticism, though, is that this happens too easily. Meena and River are at times irritatingly good kids, whose minds are always open, and whose every mistake is immediately corrected. At times, they do fight in their letters, but they are both portrayed as so level-headed that it doesn’t take much time - at least not in the narrative- for their friendship to bounce back. I also had a hard time understanding why they thought of each other as best friends so quickly. I thought part of the point of the story was going to be that over time, two different kids can become best friends because they come to a mutual understanding of each other’s backgrounds and beliefs. Instead, that close friendship came on suddenly, and the deeper level of understanding came later on. That just seemed somehow backward to me.

The value of the story, though, is that it undermines the instant gratification of modern technology and argues for the relevance of writing meaningful messages to one another and waiting anxiously for the replies. In a world where friends text more than they talk face to face, it’s important for kids to see the importance of those deeper conversations that bring unlikely pairs closer together and help each of us understand, on the larger scale, how we’re all connected by our experiences as humans.

This book obviously has an agenda and a particular political point of view, which promotes activism, criticizes government, and laments society’s unfairness toward marginalized groups. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that except that sometimes - especially in the latter half of the book - the agenda overpowers the story. River performs an act of defiance that puts him suddenly in the spotlight in a way I found irritating, and from then on, his story takes center stage, while Meena’s ends uncertainly and without fully satisfying the reader’s curiosity.

Despite these flaws, though, I think the book is very thought-provoking and will start up a lot of wonderful conversations for classes, book clubs, and families who read it as a group. If nothing else, it drives home the point that none of us is so different that we can’t make a connection, if only our minds and hearts are open to reaching mutual understanding and respect.

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