8.07.2013

Same Sun Here by Silas House and Neela Vaswani, 297 pp, RL 4

Same Sun Here is now in paperback!

The Same Sun Here by Silas House and Neela Vaswani was impossible to put down and frequently had me in tears. I can't imagine what it must be like to be one of the librarians who sit on the Newbery panel each year, but as I read The Same Sun Here I kept thinking, "This book deserves a medal. This is exactly the kind of book those librarians seem to love." Besides being worthy of awards and accolades, I also think that The Same Sun Here and its two main characters will have tremendous appeal to young readers, regardless of their gender, ethnicity or geographical location. Told in letters over the course of a year beginning in August of 2008, The Same Sun Here is the story of Meena Joshi, a native of India living in New York City's Chinatown, and River Dean Justice, who lives outside of the town of Black Banks, Kentucky. Through Meena's summer school program, she chooses River as a pen pal, specifically because he listed a snail-mail address only. Meena wants to be like the main character in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a book she is currently reading, because, living in 1912, she wrote letters. Also, on a field trip to the grocery store in which the students learn about the far-flung places that our food comes from all over the world, Meena notices a picture on a crate of Okra of the mountains in Kentucky, which she thinks looked just like the mountains of Mussoorie where Meena grew up and lived with her grandmother until she was nine, her parents and older brother having moved to the United States some six years earlier.

The brilliance of The Same Sun Here is twofold. First, both House and Vaswani create characters with very strong but different voices. In Meena, Vaswani begins the book with a bright, curious, observant twelve-year-old girl who is genuine and open with her hopes and desires when corresponding with River, a person she is not sure is a boy or girl when she writes her first letter. Meena, being relatively new to America, has a funny way of saying things sometimes and is not afraid to ask for longer letters that will match hers. In River, House creates a character who is very much an American boy (he signs his letters "Later, Tater" and "Take it easy, Cheesy!") who plays basketball, does stretching exercises to make his legs longer and plays Nintendo with his best friend Mark, but he also has a very close relationship with his grandmother, Mawmaw, and the natural world around him. He is not afraid to admit that he feels weird and different from his friends sometimes. He likes to write poetry, knows that he thinks about things his friends don't and, after a few letters, the two agree to be honest with each other and share their innermost thoughts and even begin to refer to each other as best friends. Just as you are reading along, enjoying the mutual sharing of life experiences and differences (an older brother with a secret girlfriend, a love of The Outsiders, The White Stripes and okra) the authors subtly being revealing the similarities in the main characters' lives. Both Meena and River have fathers who, for economic reasons, live and work far from home and only visit their families once or twice a month. Meena's mother is a nanny and often works late nights and weekends and River's mother has been plagued by increasingly devastating migraines since her husband left home to find work, leaving both children parentless at times. Meena and River both have very strong bonds with their grandmothers. And, most surprisingly, both find their lives upended by the forces of power and money while the adults around them respond in very different ways.

In Meena's case, her family is illegally living in the rent controlled apartment supposedly inhabited by the son of their neighbor, Mrs Lau. The Joshis, Mrs Lau and other renters suffer as their landlord refuses to fix broken windows and leaks in their apartments while also doing more underhanded things like turning off the electricity and water for days at a time in an effort to force the renters out of their homes so the units can be sold for a huge profit. On top of this, the Joshis and Mrs Lau, being immigrants, are less confident and knowledgeable when it comes to standing up for their rights. For River, his family and town suffer the dangerous and deadly affects of a coal mining practice called Mountain Top Removal. River's grandmother is an activist who mobilizes despite the prejudices of fellow townspeople and ends up at the governor's mansion as part of a huge protest. The parallels between a landlord and a large coal company and how the adults deal with them are compelling. On top of all of this are the momentous presidential elections of 2008 that bring out the racist tendencies in the south and the immense joy and sense of accomplishment that the immigrant and non-white communities in New York City experience.

Woven throughout these momentous life events are the everyday experiences that House and Vaswani layer their characters with. Meena shares that, while waiting with her brother in line to use the copier at the library a man calls them terrorists. River confesses that he might have thought the same thing too, but he "would never have been as rude as that moron who called you that." Meena's response is one that is characteristic of the friendship that develops between these two. She says, "Thank you for saying you thought me and Kiku were terrorists, too. That sounds funny, but what I mean is that I'm glad we tell each other the whole truth, and I'm glad that we can change each other's mind." Sometimes, though, the two have to agree to disagree, as in an event that made Meena and River seem especially real to me. When a boy in her class calls Meena's bare legs nasty and hairy and asks if they have razors in India, she asks to borrow her older brother's razor. At first he refuses but then changes his mind and sets Meena up with everything she will need to do the job. Meena tells River about this in her next letter to him he responds, "I appreciate you telling me everything, but to be honest I have no interest in ever hearing anything else about you shaving your legs or hair of any kind. Sorry, but I am always honest with my friends and, well, that part about you shaving and all that kind of freaked me out." Meena challenges River, saying that she is "being my true self with you" and "I'm a girl, so you may have to hear some girlie things. And I don't understand why boys are always tlaking about their gas and poop and all kinds of gross things. But if a girl says something about her body, a boy gets freaked out." A sort of stalemate ensues, but with both Meena and River respectfully and bravely speaking their minds.

Perhaps because I am the same gender as Meena, her story resonated more for me and I was struck by the way that River's story wrapped up with a happy ending of sorts while Meena's ended with the Joshis homeless but Meena happy despite the fact that she will be separated from Mrs Lau and might have to change schools when her family finds an apartment they can afford. Both families had existences that were precarious for work and health reasons, but Meena's was clearly always in greater jeopardy of falling to pieces. No matter what, River and his parents had a home with Mawmaw. And, while Meena's parents are sworn in as citizens near the end of the book, their jobs and their home are clearly tenuous. During history class when her teacher is talking about serfs he shifts to talking about immigrants in America who are taken advantage of by employers. In a chilling and concise description, Meena shares, "I kept thinking about Mummy and Daddy and all the people Daddy works with at the catering hall. I usually talk a lot in history, but when the discussion went to illegal immigrants, my hands sweated and I felt like a knife had come through the air and cut me apart from the rest of the class. But no one but me knew it had happened." While River may feel different from his friends and his community because his grandmother is an activist who fights for the environment, he never quite experiences the discrimination and danger that is an every day part of Meena's life. In this way, I think, River proves to be an anchor for Meena, keeping her connected to life and the people in her new home country.

I read this book right after reading Avi's City of Orphans (review coming soon) which is set in the tenements of New York City in 1893 and I couldn't help noticing the similarities between the treatment of immigrants over one hundred years ago and now. Of course there are differences, but it is evident that the racism and unfair treatment of those who are different continues to this day. As with City of Orphans, I think that The Same Sun Here would be a fantastic read out loud for a fourth, fifth or sixth grade classroom.

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