Summary

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 991

Author: An Na (b. 1972)

First published: 2001

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Coming-of-Age Drama

Time of plot: The late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries

Locales: South Korea; California

Principal characters

Park Young Ju , a Korean-born girl who immigrates to the United States as a child and...

(The entire section contains 991 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this Step from Heaven, A study guide. You'll get access to all of the Step from Heaven, A content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

  • Summary
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Author: An Na (b. 1972)

First published: 2001

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Coming-of-Age Drama

Time of plot: The late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries

Locales: South Korea; California

Principal characters

Park Young Ju, a Korean-born girl who immigrates to the United States as a child and grows up in California

Apa, her father

Uhmma, her mother

Halmoni, her paternal grandmother

Joon Ho, her younger brother

Gomo, her aunt

Tim, her uncle

Amanda, her best friend in California

The Story

The debut novel by the critically acclaimed young-adult author An Na, A Step from Heaven chronicles the life of protagonist Park Young Ju from early childhood until her late teen years, during which time she emigrates from South Korea to the United States and overcomes a host of family challenges as she comes of age. The novel is written as a series of vignettes that vary in length and present snippets from different periods in Young Ju's life. A Step from Heaven begins with a short vignette consisting only of dialogue and thoughts in which Young Ju plays in the water, accompanied by a family member who is later revealed to have been her father. The loving parent of that first vignette is a sharp contrast to the father, known as Apa, presented in the following sections, who drinks heavily and fights with his wife, whom Young Ju calls Uhmma.Courtesy of Penguin Young Readers

Young Ju soon learns that her parents are planning to move the family to Mi Gook, or the United States, where her aunt already lives. Although unhappy that they will be leaving her beloved paternal grandmother, Halmoni, behind, she comes to believe that the United States is heaven and that she will reunite with her deceased grandfather there. In preparation for the trip, Uhmma takes Young Ju to get her hair permed, asserting that all American girls have curly hair. Although Young Ju initially resists this attempt at physical assimilation, she ultimately complies.

When the Park family moves the United States, they settle in California, where Young Ju's aunt and uncle, Gomo and Tim, live. The family struggles to settle in, renting a house in ill repair and relying on income from multiple strenuous jobs. Young Ju likewise has a difficult time at school at first, as she speaks little English and does not initially understand school procedures such as lunch breaks. Not long after the Parks' arrival, the household welcomes a new addition, a baby boy named Joon Ho. As they grow up together, Young Ju comes to realize that she and her brother are treated differently from each other because of their respective genders, with her brother receiving preferential treatment from their father. Apa himself grows increasingly strict over the years, attempting to end Young Ju's friendship with her classmate Amanda, as he believes Amanda's influence is making his daughter too American.

As Apa's alcohol use increases, particularly after the death of Halmoni, he becomes physically abusive, beating his wife and children. Little changes even after he is arrested for drunk driving. Despite her increasing ties to the community, including the members of the local Korean church, Uhmma is unable to free herself from her increasingly toxic marriage. The family turmoil comes to a head when Young Ju is in her mid-teens, after she returns home from studying with Amanda one day. After her father beats her for lying about her whereabouts, he begins to beat her mother, and Young Ju calls the police. Apa is arrested and later chooses to return to South Korea, while the rest of the family remains in California. By the end of the novel, Young Ju is preparing to leave for college, and her family has finally moved into a house of their own.

Critical Evaluation

A Step from Heaven consists of thirty vignettes, each presenting an important moment in Young Ju's life, from playing with her brother to navigating an immigration office to facing her father's wrath. In interviews, author An Na has noted that one of the novel's major literary inspirations was the 1984 novel The House on Mango Street, written by Sandra Cisneros, the narrative of which is similarly told through vignettes. Through the use of vignettes, An is able to construct a narrative that covers more than a decade yet moves nimbly from moment to moment. Each moment, no matter how small, plays a significant role in shaping the narrative as a whole.

As a multifaceted coming-of-age novel, A Step from Heaven not only chronicles Young Ju's physical, mental, and emotional growth between early childhood and her late teen years but also follows her growth as a person and her increasing resistance to her father's abuse. Based in part on An's own experiences emigrating from South Korea to the United States as a child, with some major fictional additions—perhaps most notably the turmoil in Young Ju's family life—the novel offers a fresh and complex perspective on the development of immigrant identity, calling attention to the in-between cultural spaces in which immigrants often find themselves. The line between being American enough—with permed hair, for instance—and being too American is a significant source of conflict within Young Ju's family; meanwhile, although her father insists that she speak Korean at home so that she does not forget where she came from, one of the final vignettes reveals that she was never taught to read or write the language. As An makes clear, such contradictions are a key part of Young Ju's development, and A Step from Heaven presents them in a thought-provoking and compelling manner.

Further Reading

  • An, Na. "SPEAKing with An Na." A Step from Heaven. Speak, 2002, pp. 155–59.
  • Chira, Susan. Review of A Step from Heaven, by An Na. The New York Times, 20 May 2001, www.nytimes.com/books/01/05/20/bib/010520.rv123225.html. Accessed 28 Feb. 2017.
  • Review of A Step from Heaven, by An Na. Publishers Weekly, www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-886910-58-4. Accessed 28 Feb. 2017.
Illustration of PDF document

Download Step from Heaven, A Study Guide

Subscribe Now