Y’Tin Eban is a Vietnamese boy growing up at the end of the Vietnam War, and in many ways he’s not much different from American kids of the era. He has a circle of friends, loves his family, knows the people in his neighborhood and hates school. The biggest difference between Y’Tin and a typical American boy is that he dreams of being an elephant trainer. As Cynthia Kadohata’s new book, A Million Shades of Gray, opens, he’s about to get his wish.
Under the tutelage of an older boy in the village, Y’Tin becomes skilled in the ways of the giant gray animals. During this same period, the American soldiers leave his country, and while the war is over for the Americans, the struggle is just starting for Y’Tin and his people. The Dega are a rural tribe and mostly haven’t gotten involved in the war, but that will soon change.
Y’Tin’s father served as a scout for American soldiers, and partly for this reason, the North Vietnamese army attacks his village in retaliation as the war ends, scattering half of his tribe into the jungle. The rest—including Y’Tin—are held as terrified prisoners. Facing a situation that he can barely understand, the boy must learn whom to trust, and he comes to realize that people you’ve known all your life can change—not necessarily for the better.
Kadohata won the Newbery Medal in 2005 (for Kira-Kira), and it’s easy to see why: Human beings do things for all sorts of reasons, or sometimes for no reason at all, and her portrayals capture these ambiguities perfectly. Y’Tin goes through some horrific situations and manages to persevere. Sometimes the boy thinks a lot about what he’s doing and why, and sometimes he doesn’t think at all, but simply does what is necessary to survive—just as in real life.
In an author’s note, Kadohata explains how she conducted research on elephant behavior and the indigenous Dega people of Vietnam to prepare for writing this novel. As a result of her work, the story rings true in every way. Young readers who stress over getting the latest video game will learn important lessons in perspective from A Million Shades of Gray.
James Neal Webb works at the Vanderbilt University library.