The Language Inside by Holly Thompson
This might be a spoiler of sorts: The advance galley is printed with a March 12, 2013 pub date, but when I went searching for an image of the book’s cover to load here, online bookstores list a May date. Hmmm … if the latter is correct, then let this post serve as urgent advice: pre-order this book now.
I don’t know what makes my usually poetry-resistant brain so appreciative of novels-in-verse, but they definitely provide moments of blissful delight. And I’m growing rather partial to Holly Thompson‘s ethnic-blending, boundary-crossing, expectation-defying titles for young adults (check out her Orchards here).
Meet Emma Karas: while her name and face might suggest otherwise, Emma is Japanese. Culturally, anyway: she’s lived most of her life there, speaks the language like a native, and has a preference for miso and ramen over hamburgers and pasta. When she’s unexpectedly uprooted to Lowell, Massachusetts, all she wants to do is go home – to Japan.
Emma’s mother has cancer. Her treatment means Emma, her brother, and their mother will live in Lowell with her father’s mother. Emma’s father visits as often as he can from his job in New York City. Emma is torn between being the supportive daughter to her suffering mother, and feeling disloyal to her Japanese friends and their families who remain in shock and mourning less than a year since the devastating 2011 Tōhoku tsunami and earthquake.
To fill some of her longing-to-be-home hours, Emma volunteers at the Newell Center for Long Term Care, where she’s assigned to work with Zena, a stroke victim who can only communicate through her eyes. Zena is a poet, and her silent words which Emma helps put to paper have a healing effect on them both. The Newell Center is also where Emma meets Samnang, a fellow high school student with a troubled past, who works with two elderly survivors of the Cambodian killing fields.
Emma and Samnang are both cultural anomalies as defined by others’ assumptions: ” … when the language outside / isn’t the language inside,” Emma writes in a poem. Emma can’t be Japanese and yet she’s not quite American. Samnang is American and yet his Cambodian features make him forever other. Could such teenagers be anything but destined for each other?
As lyrical and effecting as Language is, it’s not read without questions, specifically about narrative choices. Why did Emma’s mother need to have her treatment in the States? Surely a country as advanced as Japan would have equivalent treatment options; additionally, given how long the family has been based in Japan, close family friends seem to be abundant in Japan, and virtually nonexistent Stateside. Why would Emma’s mother choose to stay with her mother-in-law instead of her own parents in Vermont? Why would Emma’s father work in New York when his wife is so seriously ill? As kind and thoughtful as she is, why is YiaYia so resistant about the foods that might comfort her extended family most?
The questions go on, but eventually such logistical details pale as Emma and Zena’s tender relationship develops, and as Emma and Samnang tentatively fall in love. ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff,’ actually comes to mind. Yes, questions linger, but ultimately, those moments of blissful delight extend … and win out.
Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult