Same Sun Here
by Silas House and Neela Vaswani
Review by Katherine Dalton
Entire contents copyright © 2012 by Katherine Dalton. All rights reserved.
Bookstores are full of junky teen books. This is not one of them.
Same Sun Here is a novel in letters written by two authors: bestselling Kentucky writer Silas House (Eli the Good, Clay's Quilt); and New York-based Neela Vaswani, author of the memoir You Have Given Me a Country. (She also has a Kentucky connection, teaching at Spaulding's MFA in Writing program.)
Mr. House has written his half in the voice of a 12-year-old Eastern Kentucky boy named River Dean Justice, while Ms. Vaswani's character is Meena Joshi, a recent immigrant from India living in New York's Chinatown. These fictional children are not just 800 miles, but worlds and cultures, apart and the book's main storyline is how they plausibly find and seal their unlikely friendship.
Both River and Meena have housing troubles and mostly-absent fathers. River's family lost their home when his father lost his mining job, and the boy and his mother are now living with his beloved grandmother in the shadow of a mining site, while his father is gone months at a time working in Mississippi. Meena stays with her family in a rent-controlled apartment in downtown New York where they are perched precariously and illegally, living under someone else's lease. Her father, too, is gone most of the month to be nearer his work in New Jersey.
The book has great charm and it is all in the voices of these children-on-the-cusp-of-adult-understanding, as 12-year-olds are. Ms. Vaswani writes with observant delicacy about what Meena sees and feels, and the stories Meena tells are funny or moving or piquant by turn: about her brother's tactlessness and kindness; her love for her Chinese-American neighbor, Mrs. Lau, or her teacher at school; and all the other details of a young girl's day amidst the stress of learning a new culture and growing up. The upheaval her family goes through near the end of the book emerges naturally from the storyline and makes for good reading, particularly for those fortunate enough always to have had a roof over their heads.
River's story is more publicly dramatic as he lives through an accident caused by mountaintop removal and the ensuing publicity that becomes his lot as he joins his grandmother to march in Frankfort. (The description of this protest—right down the jars of dirty water—is reminiscent of what happened in Frankfort almost exactly one year ago, when a group of Kentuckians protested mountaintop removal by having a sit-in outside Governor Beshear's office. Silas House was one of the sitters.)
Same Sun Here ends as it began, in the appealing voice of Meena—a gentlemanly choice on the part of Mr. House, for Ms. Vaswani has just the right touch with this character. She has created a resilient girl who has left behind so much, and taken on so much, but whose friendship with a boy far away has helped her see how much she has to hope for.
Katherine Dalton is a contributing editor to Chronicles Magazine and to frontporchrepublic.com. Her essay “Fidelity” was included in Wendell Berry: Life and Art (University Press of Kentucky). She lives in Louisville.
HEAR SILAS HOUSE IN PERSON
Monday, February 20 at 7 p.m.
Silas House will read from Same Sun Here and sign books at the Clifton Center's Eifler Theatre, 2117 Payne Street. For more information, call 502-896-6950.