A Step From Heaven by An Na
When Young Ju and her family move to America from Korea, they expect to be in the promised land, but their experience is anything but paradise. To support their daughter and new son, Joon, the parents take multiple menial jobs and settle for a temporary home that leaves much to be desired. As Ju and Joon become more American, their father descends into alcoholism and violence as he tries to keep their Korean identity and find his piece of the American dream. While Ju focuses on making excellent grades to please her father and keeping her poverty from her friends, Joon becomes increasingly distant and angry, turning to art to explore his angst. Joon, the favored son and hope for the future wants nothing to do with Korean identity, and Ju, who wants nothing more than to made her father proud again, finds herself acting as a translator for her parents. Soon their father is losing jobs and interest in supporting his family, and it falls on their mother to keep the family together and afloat. When their father’s violence escalates, Ju brings in the authorities, but their mother will not press charges. Instead she immerses herself in church and her faith, which give her the strength to hold onto her children as her husband returns to Korea. Together, Ju, Joon, and their mother build a new life for themselves away from the mental, physical, and emotional abuse of their father.
While the story is told from Ju’s perspective, the reader is able to discern a very clear picture of the entire family. Ju is a sympathetic narrator who recounts the dark moments alongside the shining ones. She is clearly torn between her love for her father and her need to protect her family from him. She is appalled when she realizes that she has no memories of her father as the lively, loving man who left Korea to find a place for his family in America. The reader watches as her mother becomes literally and figuratively beaten down by her new life and as Joon grows into a bitter, damaged young man.
There are rare moments of beauty and wonder, but they remind the reader of how complex childhood is to navigate. When Ju and Joon try to save an injured bird, they bond as siblings even as they fight over ownership. Ultimately, the bird does not survive and the two have a touching memorial for their symbolic dreams on the hill overlooking the world they want to be a part of. Ju’s memories of waiting in the car while her mother works are bittersweet, and she has a heartbreaking moment with her father upon the death of his mother. With each member of her family, Ju experiences a complicated and conflicted relationship; with each she struggles to fulfill her own destiny and protect them from themselves and each other.
Na creates a realistic picture of striving for the American dream. The struggles of the family will resonate with many immigrants and will give a more well rounded picture of the process to nonimmigrants as well. In addition, readers will respond to Ju’s conflicting loyalties as the family comes to terms with her father’s addiction. Na resists the urge to create a perfect full-circle ending which would dilute the power of the novel. Instead the story comes to a realistic and ultimately satisfying conclusion that will reflect the experience of many readers.