A Step from Heaven
by An Na

An Na's A Step from Heaven

Book review by Monica Friedman

Young Adult

A Korean-American Girl Confronts Alcoholism and Domestic Violence

This compact, award-winning novel offers a tremendous wallop with a powerful storyline and a unique and personal point of view, ensuring its place among my very favorite young adult novels. This is a story that can be read over and over, always inspiring fresh emotions.

A Step from Heaven - summary and review

Young Ju is a little girl when her parents, Apa and Uhmma, announce they will be moving to America, leaving behind Young Ju’s beloved grandmother, Halmoni.

The author and her book

Young Ju is so small she confuses America, the land of possibilities, with heaven, and is soon bewildered by a new world with new foods, new traditions, and a new language.

Told in a series of vignettes, A Step from Heaven chronicles Young Ju’s dawning awareness. She begins to learn English and navigate America, until she is

  • a fluent speaker,
  • a straight-A student, and
  • responsible, at times, for translating this new world to her parents.

Her little brother, Joon, born in America and growing up wholly American, doesn’t seem to straddle two cultures the way Young Ju must, and his irreverent slacker attitude is only another problem the girl must shoulder.

Everything is supposed to be different in America, but some things do not change.

Her father’s temper, exacerbated by his drinking, continues to flare. Apa is a monster, someone Young Ju can only be close to on very rare occasions.

His overzealous love, offered “on some weekend mornings, not always, hardly even any, but some,” leaves “a carpet burn on our knee. Or a bruise on our arm. But that does not matter… because… that is when we can finally put our arms around him.”

More often, her father is a seething pot of anger, furious at his lot in life, burdened by children who are too American for his tastes, and a wife who strives for middle class comforts he cannot provide.

He “slams his hand” across faces, “swiftly kicks” stomachs, and leaves marks across Uhmma’s back, bruises so painful she cannot lift her arms to put her hair in a ponytail.

Young Ju tells no one of her home life. Even her best American friend, Amanda, knows nothing. Too ashamed to show her the shabby apartment, Young Ju meets Amanda only in the library, and asks to be dropped off at a big house on a hill when she cannot refuse a ride home.

Strength, despite a drunk and violent father

Young Ju is a strong heroine, despite growing up in a world where her strength is constantly undermined. With the resilience of childhood, combined with an indomitable will and a powerful intelligence, she comes to see through the lies constructed by her father.

As her father’s drinking and violence escalates, she insists on unearthing the evidence her mother continues to hide. “Why does Apa do it?” she demands.

“Your life can be different, Young Ju,” her mother says. “Study and be strong. In America, women have choices.”

“I stand up. Stare straight at Uhmma. You have choices, Uhmma.”

But in the end, Young Ju must choose for her mother to save as much of her family as can still be saved. A Step From Heaven shows the strength and courage of a girl who has been raised to disregard the power within her and to buckle under the hand of a tyrant. It is a story of triumph, of a strong spirit that cannot be broken, and it is a story of love.

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