An Na

A Step from Heaven

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A Step from Heaven Summary

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Korean American author An Na’s debut young adult novel, A Step from Heaven (2001), follows the life of Korean immigrant Young Ju in snapshots from childhood to young adulthood in California. The book received the 2002 Michael L. Printz Award from the American Library Association and began Na’s successful literary career.

The story begins in South Korea. Young Ju is a baby playing in the sea with her parents. When she gets a little older, her father, Apa, a heavy drinker, is either abusive or absent in her life. Her mother, Uhmma, wishes to immigrate to the United States. She convinces her husband to write to his sister who lives in America. The sister helps them to immigrate. Young Ju is so dazzled by the descriptions she hears about “Mi Gook,” or the United States, that she compares it to the description of heaven her grandmother tells her. She is told that they must take a plane to get to America. The sky, her grandmother tells her, is where heaven is.

Upon arrival, Young Ju decides that the United States is not heaven, but “a step from heaven.” She goes to school and teaches her parents everything she learns even as she struggles herself with the language barrier. She also sees the difficulty her parents are facing with cultural adjustment. Eventually, her mother gives birth to a baby boy, Park Joon Ho. Apa loves his new son in a way that has been missing from Young Ju’s life, and she becomes jealous. As Joon Ho grows older, Apa is hard on him and disciplines him firmly. He even beats him. Because of this, Joon Ho becomes stern and quiet. He locks himself in his room and avoids the family. He struggles in school and ditches often.

Meanwhile, Young Ju excels at school, even receiving the award for the best ninth-grade GPA in the school. She becomes friends with her classmate Amanda, a girl Apa dislikes for being too American. Apa and Uhmma work five jobs between them, spending little time with their children at home, which gives Young Ju the opportunity to hang out with Amanda. Young Ju still maintains some distance, however, by not allowing Amanda to see where she lives. She always has Amanda’s parents drop her off at the library. In the meantime, Apa’s drinking worsens and he receives a DUI. He also loses his cleaning job. He becomes unpredictable and is often absent, but Young Ju continues to spend time with Amanda. When he catches Amanda and her parents dropping Young Ju off at the library, he is furious and confronts Young Ju. He beats her, as Uhmma protests, and Young Ju calls the police. He turns his fury on Uhmma, breaking some of her ribs. Her father is arrested.

The following morning when Young Ju and Uhmma go to the police station to pick up Apa, he ignores them and leaves the station in another woman’s car. They never see him again. Apa’s sister informs the family that he is returning to South Korea. At first, Uhmma blames Young Ju for what happened, but she apologies later. The three of them are determined to succeed in America without Apa.

Years later, Young Ju earns a scholarship for college and her mother buys a house for the family. Young Ju lives in the family house for a few months before leaving for college. She makes peace with the memories she has of her father after looking at some old pictures and appreciates the upward momentum her family has in the United States.

A Step from Heaven juggles several heavy themes in a relatively short book span. Cultural adjustment is a major theme as Young Ju and her family learn the ropes in their new country, as well as a new language. Foreignness plays a major role in the story, as Young Ju first views Americans as foreign but then shifts to viewing herself as foreign. Gender equality plays a role as well as Young Ju is promised by family members in the United States that girls can do anything, unlike in South Korea where that is not possible. Yet, her father treats little Joon Ho as the favored child because he is a boy.

Critics have acknowledged the engaging prose of Young Ju’s point of view and the accuracy with which author Na portrays a young female mind. The “fluid, lyrical language” as Publisher’s Weekly puts it, grows in maturity along with Young Ju, and Korean words are interspersed throughout the text. In fact, many of the character names are simple Korean words; “Apa” means father, “Uhmma” means mother, and so on. The snapshots of life come together like a memoir, tracing a fictional life as brilliantly as a real one.