Audio Review: Same Sun Here by Silas House and Neela Vaswani

6

April 18, 2013 by Heidi

Same Sun Here by Silas House and Neela VaswaniTitle: Same Sun Here [Goodreads]
Author: Silas House [Website|Facebook] and Neela Vaswani [Website]
Narrator: Narrated by the authors.
Standing: Stand alone.
Genre: Middle Grade, Contemporary
Published: February 14th 2012 by Candlewick on Brilliance Audio
Format: Audiobook; 5 hrs, 47 min.
Source: Borrowed from my local library.

Meena and River have a lot in common: fathers forced to work away from home to make ends meet, grandmothers who mean the world to them, and faithful dogs. But Meena is an Indian immigrant girl living in New York City’s Chinatown, while River is a Kentucky coal miner’s son. The unlikely pair become pen pals, sharing thoughts on their lives and, as their friendship deepens, on larger issues such as activism, immigration, racism, and prejudice. Meena’s family studies for citizenship exams, faces harassment by a landlord, and experiences the death of Meena’s grandmother in India, while River’s town faces devastating mountaintop removal, propelling him into a protest march and confrontation with the governor. This glimpse into the lives of two very different youths who find common ground in their everyday lives makes bold statements about cultural misconceptions, the power and powerlessness of the individual and community, and the great value of being and having a friend.

Every once in a great while I find cause to pick up a book I know little to nothing about and am fortunate enough to be utterly charmed.  Same Sun Here was one of two Audie nominees for Middle Graders that I was unfamiliar with, and yet I am happy to see it in such good company.  For some inexplicable reason, I have shied away from doing epistolary novels via audio.  After listening to the absolute joy that was Same Sun Here, I’m putting all epistolary reads in my TBR into my TBLT (to-be-listened-to) pile, because clearly two formats could not be more perfectly married.  Of course a book featuring letters sent back and forth between two young people would be best told audibly by two narrators.

Yes, I am assuming this book has some physical formatting one misses when listening to it rather than reading the physical copy–there is poetry, and I am also assuming the written letters are “written” and the typed letters are “typed”, particularly since the matter of writing is actually discussed.  But, what you loose in visual formatting you gain in audible; each of the authors is able to perfectly embody the characters they narrate, Neela Vaswani capturing young Meena with her Indian-born English, and Silas House bringing River to life, a boy from the mountains of Kentucky.  The way each talks is such an important facet of the story and overcoming assumptions that being able to hear how these characters talk affects the story more deeply than seeing their writing ever could.

And thus, we must talk about the story.  Same Sun Here captures the unique lives of two young people who have, through school programs, become pen-palls.  Old-school letter writing pen-pals in a day and age when e-mail would be the go-to route for almost every child.  Their choice to sit down and write (or type) letters that are sent through the post immediately clues us into the reality that Meena and River are not your average American tweens.  The two form a bond of friendship in which they declare they are their “own true selves”, sharing their fears, hopes, and even the ugly and presumptive thoughts we all sometimes have.

Meena’s story captures the immigrant experience, as a young girl whose parents left her with her grandmother in the mountains of India while they migrated with her brother to the United States.  They has assumed they’d be leaving her for only a short while, but it turned into six years before they were able to bring her to join them in NYC.  Consequently, there is a bit of a riff in her family, who are studying to become American while living illegally in a rent-controlled apartment in Chinatown.  River is the son of a coal miner, and he and Meena bond over the fact that both their fathers live away from their families in order to provide for their families–Meena’s father working at a catering hall in New Jersey, River’s father working in the Gulf.  River is concerned with mining practices in his area and the affects they have on the environment, and is feeling stifled in an area where traits like racism and close-mindedness are prevalent.

Same Sun Here is one of those rare books that manages to carry meaningful messages without the frying pan affect.  While at times it skirted the edge of being too political for me, I felt the authors did an excellent job of focusing on issues that transcend one’s particular politics–not judging someone because of their accent, appearance, religion, sexual preference, etc., the value of family and friends, respecting one’s parents, learning to stand on one’s own and fight for what you believe in.  The political beliefs of the authors are obvious, but they do attempt to show that there are various sides to the issues raised (most predominantly coal mining, but also issues like immigration), which I appreciate.  Quite frankly, Same Sun Here is a story that could influence the lives of countless readers for the better.  It promotes the notion of opening your heart and mind to those who live differently from yourself, reminding us that we are all, when you get to the heart of it, just people.

Likelihood that I’ll be back for more:  I’ll be watching for both of these authors in the future, and in the meantime I’m going to listen to more epistolary novels!

Recommended for:  This is one I’ll happily push onto all of my audio-book listening readers.  It deals with issues in a way that’s more real than many books meant for older readers, and is absolutely charming.

Get a second opinion:
Wear the Old Coat – “There is such a sweet and true message hidden within these pages but there’s a difference between talking about an issue and clobbering you over the head with it.”
Galavanting Girl Books – “Overall I liked this book.  But I started out absolutely loving and my love waned.”

Armchair Audies
This review was written as part of the 2013 Armchair Audies.

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6 comments »

  1. Reynje says:

    This sounds amazing, Heidi. I think I remember a friend on Goodreads reading it a while ago, but it had completely fallen off my radar. Nice to see that any messaging didn’t come across too heavy-handed either..

    • Heidi says:

      I’ve only had a few Goodreads friend read this one, but every one of them has really enjoyed it! It’s my favorite contemporary I’ve read in some time.

  2. Honestly, what draws me into this the most is the fact that one of the characters is Indian. It’s often frustrating to read contemporary novels (another reason I suspect I avoid the genre as much as I can) because the experiences of American teenagers is so different from the experiences of an immigrant teenager. We have so much emphasis given on maintaining our cultural roots in a foreign country that it becomes tough to assimilate fully with the culture here, so I’m really looking forward to this now. Thanks for putting it on my radar, Heidi! I’d have definitely not heard about it if it wasn’t for you!(:

    • Heidi says:

      I totally thought of you when I listened to this one, Keertana! I know that Meena is younger than you (she’s 12), but I think you or your siblings might connect to this one through the immigrant experience. It definitely touches on the struggle of becoming American but retaining who they are as Indians. For example Meena has an older brother who has a secret girlfriend who is Hispanic because he is forbidden to see anyone non-Indian by their parents. One of the most touching moments in the book is when Meena and her mother fight over what it means to be a ‘normal’ young woman–whether Meena is her Indian daughter or her American daughter. I really hope you do read it! I’d love to hear what you think.

  3. Alexa Y. says:

    I do like epistolary books! They’re a lot of fun to read, and I always feel satisfied with how much I get to know a character through the letters they write. Listening to this one in audio must have been fascinating, as the two narrators sound very different indeed. Glad you liked it!

    • Heidi says:

      The two narrators were VERY different, but they embodied their characters perfectly! I do like this type of collaborative epistolary novel, I think it is a style that works so well.

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