A Million Shades of Gray
Cynthia Kadohata (Juvenile Fiction)
Even at eleven years old, Y’Tin Eban knew what his future would look like: he would work with his elephant, Lady, until she died; he would travel to Ban Me Thuot then to Thailand and finally to America; and he would open an elephant-training school in Vietnam. But it’s 1975 and the American soldiers have been gone from Vietnam for two years now. Y’Tin and his tribe live in Central Highlands in South Vietnam and every day, soldiers from the north are advancing closer and closer to his village. The Americans called it the Vietnam War. His father called it the American War. And now, this war was coming to Y’Tin’s remote part of the country and everything that his future once promised is about to change forever.
It’s never easy to discuss the horror and ugliness of war, especially when that discussion involves a younger audience (this book is targeted for readers ages ten and older). Cynthia Kadohata is able to portray a country savagely torn apart by Civil War with remarkable honesty and sensitivity. Because she is dealing with younger readers, she avoids graphic details and opts for subtle clues and visuals that guide readers to the desired conclusion. For example, she describes a scene where captive male villagers are forced to dig a very long and deep pit on the outskirts of the village. Older readers know immediately that this is a mass grave and the outlook is bleak for the villagers. However, the younger reader shares the same learning curve as Y’Tin and both share in the eventual realization of what is actually taking place at the same time.
Several reviewers found this book to be too “anti-American” given the repeated mentions by the villagers of the Americans’ broken promise to return should assistance be needed. But Kadohata foregoes popularity points by choosing to give us a story based on the villagers’ perspective. They are a community that is scared, helpless, and feels very much abandoned and alone. It’s an honest representation of the many thousands who were facing certain annihilation by their own government. While this book deals mainly with war and its effects, at the heart is a young boy—rapidly thrown into manhood—and his relationship with his elephant, Lady. The mutual trust they have for one another and the formidable bond they share serve as the singular bright spot in what is often a rather dark and grim story.
The book’s title, A Million Shades of Grey, refers to the colors of the jungle right before sunrise, as well as the color of an elephant’s hide. In life, we often view things—view choices—as being a matter of “black or white”. Kadohata reminds us that things aren’t always that simple and that every day we face or own “million shades of gray”. At one time, Y’Tin said that you don’t love and you don’t make promises during times of war. But it took his village’s smallest but strongest elephant to show him otherwise…that even during war, it is possible to have both.
* Book cover image attributed to www.publishersweekly.com