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A Million Shades of Gray

Review

A Million Shades of Gray

For many Americans, no matter their age, the Vietnam War has receded into distant memory or even the realm of myth. Outside of the iconic Vietnam Veterans Memorial and dwindling accounts in films and books, this 1960s and ’70s-era war has been subsumed by more recent conflicts.

Even for Americans who remember the war, their knowledge of it probably ceases at the point when the U.S. troops withdrew from what seemed an increasingly hopeless and unpopular situation. But what happened to the South Vietnamese people who were left behind when the Americans withdrew to cut their own losses? Cynthia Kadohata explores this devastating question in A MILLION SHADES OF GRAY.

Thirteen-year-old Y’Tin has one passion: elephants. Y’Tin is an expert elephant trainer, the youngest handler in his village. He is not so enthusiastic about school, though --- he would rather spend his energies training his beloved elephant, Lady, with whom he has a close, intuitive relationship, without the violence and mistrust that characterizes some other handlers’ treatment of their animals. Y’Tin’s goal is to open his own school someday --- an elephant training school, that is, the first of its kind in Vietnam.

But history might have its own plans for Y’Tin. His Dega tribe has long had a relationship with the American troops fighting the North Vietnamese --- many men like Y’Tin’s own father have assisted the American Special Forces in exchange for a promise that the Americans will always defend the Dega if the North Vietnamese break their treaty agreement and attack these mountain-dwelling South Vietnamese people.

In the wake of the American withdrawal, however, the U.S. troops seem to have forgotten about their promise to the Dega. And when the North Vietnamese attack Y’Tin’s home, nearly half of the villagers are killed, and many others --- including Y’Tin --- are captured, forced to perform manual labor (including digging mass graves) at penalty of death.

In Cynthia Kadohata’s well-researched coming-of-age story, Y’Tin matures from an impetuous boy into a less trusting, more cautious, but still goal-oriented young man. At the end of the novel, his future is not quite what he had imagined, but he is still able to find hope despite the horrific things he has seen and done. Kadohata pulls no punches in her depiction of war. In her compassionate portrayal of Y’Tin and his people, she vividly brings immediacy to a conflict that too many people have forgotten about or never really knew.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on November 1, 2011

A Million Shades of Gray
by Cynthia Kadohata

  • Publication Date: November 1, 2011
  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers
  • ISBN-10: 1442429194
  • ISBN-13: 9781442429192