Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Thing About Luck

To me, the thing about National Book Award winning  The Thing about Luck by author Cynthia Kadohata, is that the story and content is unique. In what other middle grade novel can one learn something about mosquito born illnesses, Japanese family life,  the details of wheat harvesting in the Great Plains in America, and let's not forget the nature of true love?

When her parents return temporarily to Japan, Summer, the twelve year-old protagonist is left in Kansas with her grandparents and her brother. They go on the road during the wheat harvesting season as employees of a harvesting company.

Harvesting wheat is a family occupation for Summer's family. Author Cynthia Kadohata not only makes the various steps involved in wheat harvesting comprehensible, she makes it interesting and relevant. Never did I put the novel down and think it was too didactic, even though wheat harvesting might be considered monotonous (rows and rows of wheat cut, the grain then separated from the chaff, collected and dumped into vats and eventually ending up in a grain elevator for storage.) We learn about moisture content of wheat and the dangers involved in cutting and storing wheat that is too wet.  It is a high stakes operation.

Summer and her family do not have it easy. Grandmother has debilitating back pain and grandfather suffers from exhaustion. They are poor and they have no choice but work hard and Summer has to do her part. It seemed to me as I read, that the harvesting of the wheat became a metaphor for the loyalty and persistence involved in love and family life. Like harvesting, it requires a plodding along and a never give-up attitude (or the wheat spoils). You just keep going.

During harvest, Summer has met a boy.  At the end of the novel, she talks to her grandfather about love.  He tells her the difference between the real love, the kind that fuels marriage and family, and temporary love.  Grandfather says:

When you get marry, it like great Shinto shrine of Ise. It many hundred of years old, but for all those hundreds of years, they rebuild it every twenty years. In temporary love, no rebuilding. 

Just as wheat is grown and harvested yearly with great effort, so it is in family life. There is no preaching in this novel. The themes that speak to me in this book arise organically from the characters, the setting, and plot as Kadohata tells this compelling story.

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