Title: A Million Shades of Grey
Author(s): Cynthia Kadohata
Genre: MG Historical, War
Page Count: 216
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
The Summary: Y'Tin wants nothing more than to spend the rest of his life with Lady, his elephant, and become a elephant handler. But the Vietnam War looms closer and closer into his tribe's every day life. As the Americans leave and the North Vietnamese army marches closer and closer, Y'Tin seeks a way to live and stay with Lady - no matter what it takes.
The Review: Some confessions I must make before I proceed with the review: I love Cynthia Kadohata's works. From the momemt I read the first page of Weedflower back in the cold wintery day of January last year, I fell in love. Kadohata has this wonderful way of capturing her protagonists' voice, and her stories are so intimate, so personal, like the protagonist is speaking to me, and her stories break my heart in all the right places.
Now, despite this love, I was also somewhat apprehensive about this novel. For one thing, as much as I love Weedflower, Kira-Kira, and Cracker: The Best Dog in Vietnam, I did not care for Outside Beauty at all, which was her latest work just before A Million Shades of Grey came out. It utterly failed to impress me. That was the first time I felt that the voice of the protagonist was unconvincing, and voice is the best aspect of Kadohata's writing. I, well, I admit to wondering if maybe Kadohata might be losing her touch. That coupled with the fact that this will be the first novel I read by her with a male protagonist, and I was weary in wondering whether she could pull off a male's voice.
Well, this book just blew all my apprehensions out of the water, and taught me that I should just never doubt Cynthia Kadohata's mastery in writing ever again (I'll just chalk Outside Beauty as an anomaly). It was amazing. Brilliant! It is actually the saddest Kadohata story I've read, and if anyone's familiar with any of her other titles, you know I'm really saying something here.
Y'Tin was a brilliant protagonist. Kadohata proved to me that not only can she completely charm me with her portrayal of a young boy's voice, but capture the child perspective of the war around him in the most convincing fashion. I was in Y'Tin's head the whole way through, and every laugh, every heartbreak Y'Tin went through, I not only sympathized, I felt it inside with him. His heartrendering relationship with Lady, the elephant he trained, was one of the most beautiful animal companion relationships I've ever seen, and I'm saying this as a person who is normally skeptical of animal companionship tales. Y'Tin tells us he cares about Lady more than anything in the world, and you just - you really believe it, and that's why when the events of the novel unravel, it just breaks you - there.
And the story! Wow, what a story. Like all of Kadohata's work, the ride is slow but sure, as she draws you into the lives of her characters then slowly builds up the events, one at a time to a breathtaking climax, and an ending that will tear your heart out. If anyone was worried about this book not being able to pull off the grittiness and ravages of a war setting - since, well, as much as I loved Cracker, Kadohata gave us a very sanitized version of the Vietnam War in that particular book - no need to worry about that here, the horrors of war are shown in all its traumatizing glory! I may or may not have completely embarrassed myself at a dinner party as people saw me bawling in public, book in hand. I like how Kadohata decided to show the war from the Montagnards' perspective, an indigenous tribe living out in the jungle of Vietnam. It offers us a perspective that's outside of the usual Vietcong or American GI perspective, yet still very much a part of the war. Y'Tin's family helped out the Americans, and it was fascinating to see the effects towards the end of the war for this decision, as the Americans left them to their fate and the Vietcongs come closing in. I was reading a review of this book by The Bookbag which argued that it idealized the American GIs way too much and vilified the Vietcongs. Which is a valid interpretation, and I do see shades of that in the story, but I think the reason why it worked for me, this portrayal of the Montagnards helping the GIs is that the Montagnards do not benefit from this aid. The Americans were not at all their knights in shining armour coming to their rescue - it was quite the opposite. The whole story is set around the time when the Montagnards were to fend for themselves, and explores the broken promises of protection made by the Americans, and it was very sad, and very painful to see. We see the slow change in which Y'Tin's peers reacted around him, as the people within his tribe blamed his family for helping the Americans and it's a credit to Kadohata's fantastic writing abilities that she is able to render these moments heartwrenching without overwrought writing.
It's worth noting however that while there were some positive portrayals of the Americans, by contrast there were absolutely none of that when we see portrayals of the Vietnamese people. If they weren't calling the Montagnard savages, they were attacking their villages. I am not too 100% sure of Thorat's ethnicity, who was character portrayed sympathetically, but even so, he was a sympathetic teacher teaching French, a colonial language. (Oh! Sidenote: the French here is all grammatically correct! I say this because I often get annoyed when I find books that don't bother checking their grammar when they decide to have the characters spreaking French in the story.) Hopefully Cynthia Kadohata would consider writing another novel set in Vietnam that gives the side of the Vietnamese more justice.
The Verdict: This is decidedly the best work by Cynthia Kadohata so far, and most definitely my favourite. Clear, crisp writing, a charming protagonist, a sweet animal companion tale, and a war-ridden setting that shatters your heart. After reading this novel, I couldn't get the story out of my head for weeks. This book will make you smile, laugh, cry, and leaves you with a sad, yet hopeful at the end. What more can we want out of a novel, really? This book deserves to be up there and known with the other amazingly wrought war stories such as Markus Zusak's The Book Thief and the like. Run, don't walk, to get a copy of this novel. You won't regret it.
Title and Cover Discussion: The title is passable, I suppose. However, the title doesn't give me an immediate connection to what I've read in the story. Which is too bad, since all her other titles (Kira-Kira, Outside Beauty, Cracker, Weedflower) did this so well. But I think it hints at the layers of war being explored, that the side to the story isn't all just black and white, that there's the people not on either sides. Of course, I could be wrong, and those who've read the novel can feel free to share the title thoughts they have about this with me here. I'm all ears! I do love the cover. It's not exactly shiny or anything but it has Y'Tin AND Lady being all BFF there! How can I not love it? ♥ And I passed by the hardcover of this book a while back in the bookstore and the inside of the cover is beautifullll. It is the pattern of the jungle leaves we see on the top of the cover. But I'm not really a fan of the cover for the hardback... What's the difference, you ask? Well, they photoshopped in the 'Asian' hat. Not only does Y'Tin never actually wear that hat in the story, but I get the sense that the hat was pasted on to hint and the ~*exotic*~ Asian-ness. This is not the first time this happened with Kadohata's covers, but they make me sigh. lol, but w/e my version doesn't have the hat on it so YAY HAPPINESS. ♥