National Book Award winner The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata sat on my shelf for about a year. I chose it because our family had enjoyed another Kadohata novel, A Million Shades of Gray, on audio a few years back. I’m sorry I waited so long to read this one – it’s a warm, funny story about growing up among the clash of two cultures and about learning to make your own luck.
Twelve-year old narrator Summer begins the novel by telling us about the year her family had nothing but bad luck. She got a rare case of malaria, her grandmother’s back pain worsened considerably, her younger brother, Jaz (who seems to be autistic), lost his only friend, and their parents had to travel to Japan for the summer to care for elderly relatives who were dying. That left Summer and Jaz in the care of their grandparents, Obaachan and Jiichan. Their sixty-seven year old grandparents preferred a more Japanese/less American approach to life, so changes were made as soon as they got back from the airport.
Summer’s Kansas family worked every summer as custom harvesters, traveling from Texas north to the Dakotas, following the wheat harvest. With her parents away, her grandparents had to come out of retirement so that the bills would still get paid. The plan was for Jiichan (her grandfather) to drive a combine, while Obaachan would get hired as the cook for the harvesting crew, with Summer as her helper. The kids had gone on harvest with their parents before, but this year would be different.
I absolutely loved this book – its National Book Award was well deserved. It’s set against a fascinating background, as Summer explains how custom harvesting works (something I’d never even heard of before) and narrates their adventures that summer. Summer is a wonderful pre-teen narrator, struggling to find her way in her world and help her brother make friends. The highlight of the book, though, is Summer’s grandparents, whose broken English and insistent ways often made me laugh out loud. Here’s a passage from the beginning of the novel, on the day Summer’s parents left, as her grandparents put into action their plan for finding Jaz some new friends:
“We having meeting-party,” she announced regally. “We invite boys we will consider for friendship with Jaz.” She turned to me. “Make list with him. I no interfere.”“A list of people to invite?” I asked. My Doberman, Thunder, tried to push himself between me and the table. I pushed back, and we just sat there, leaning hard into each other.“No! A list!” she snapped at me.Wasn’t that what I had just said? I finally got up and moved to a different side of the table. Still unsure what she wanted, I got a pen and paper.“Pencil! You may need to erase.”I got a pencil and readied myself. “Should I number the list? I asked.My grandfather nodded sagely. “Agenda,” he said. “List for boys we invite, agenda for party.”“No interfere!” Obaachan said to Jiichan.“You interfere first!”
This warm, humorous tone permeates the entire novel, even when things get difficult for Summer. Eventually, she will have to make some difficult decisions and take responsibility for making her own luck. It is an absolutely delightful novel, realistically rendered, about the challenges of growing up, while taking care of yourself and the people you care about. Highly recommended.
270 pages, Atheneum