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BOOK REVIEW: A Million Shades of Gray by Cynthia Kadohata

A Million Shades of GrayA Million Shades of Gray by Cynthia Kadohata
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This young adult (YA) novel is set in the Central Highlands of Vietnam during the last few years of the war. The lead character, Y’tin, is an adolescent whose life ambition is to be an elephant handler, a dream which he’s well on the way to achieving and which he’d be a shoo-in for if he didn’t live in war-torn times. His life is complicated by the fact that his father has worked for the American Special Forces (as a tracker), and the war is turning in the favor of the North.

When US forces withdraw and South Vietnamese forces are overrun, Y’tin escapes into the jungle with a couple of other boys and their elephants. Almost immediately a fault line freezes out Y’tin. The three boys had been close friends in the village, but under the stress of jungle life, the other two resent that Y’tin’s father worked for US Special Forces and that Y’tin, himself, had once gone on mission with the Americans. They believe that this is what has brought the war to their village. On the other hand, they recognize that Y’tin is more gifted in jungle craft than they, especially tracking, because of the education of his father.

Because of these skills, Y’tin is chosen to go back on a mission to reconnoiter their village, and he finds it’s been bombed out and nobody is to be seen. This leaves it unclear how many of the villagers escaped versus being executed by the North Vietnamese forces—but he does know many were killed. [Incidentally, the title comes from Y’tin’s view of the jungle after seeing the remnants of his village—i.e. instead of being a million shades of green, all he can see is gray.]

Besides telling the story of Y’tin’s adventures in surviving the war, the novel pivots on Y’tin’s role as a mahout—and ultimately as a protector of the elephants. Y’tin finds himself in a position in which his dream is no longer tenable, and he must decide whether take a heroic risk to save the elephants or hold on to his dream in the face of unfavorable odds.

The book is only a little over 200 pages arranged into 14 chapters, and—as would be expected of YA fiction—is readable. The book’s strength is in building a lead character who’s interesting by virtue of his mix of worldly naiveté and jungle [local] wisdom and giving him intense challenges and dilemmas. Weakness? The strict chronological progression results in a slow start in which the author spends a chapter establishing that the lead character loves elephants without anything interesting happening. However, if one gives the book til the second chapter, things start happening.

I’d recommend this book for readers of fiction, and particularly those interested in YA fiction and stories of war.

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