CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 29. . . .April 2, 2010.
Shine, Coconut Moon.
New York, NY: Margaret K. McElderry Books (Distributed in Canada by Simon & Schuster Canada), 2009.
253 pp., hardcover, $19.99.
East Indian Americans-Fiction.
September 11 Terrorist Attacks, 2001-Fiction.
Grades 8-11 / Ages 13-16.
Review by Joan Marshall.
“Until I came along,” he says softly. “This is what you ran away from. And here I am, bringing it all back to your doorstep.”
Mom doesn’t meet his eyes. “Sandeep, we’ve spoken about this ad nauseam. I left because I couldn’t breathe. I felt like hands were around my throat, day in and day out. I left because that” –– she points out the window to Uncle Sandeep’s car –– “was going on at school, and at home I wasn’t allowed to have a single free thought!”
“And all these years everything’s been fine because you could pretend you don’t belong to us.” He stands up. “You could run away, fit in, and cloak your differences –– become an upstanding assimilated American.”
“Careful,” Mom says, her voice deadly calm.
“No, Sharon, you’ve had your say about Ma and Papa and me.” He walks to his coat and boots. “Why doesn’t Samar speak a stitch of Punjabi? Why has she no clue about her family? What does she know about her history, the struggles of her people?”
Mom’s hands clench at her sides. “I think you’d better leave now.”
“Fine,” he says, “but you need to hear it. Samar deserves better.” He looks at me. His lashes are wet. “Bye, Samar. You have my cell number –– call me if you need anything at all.”
I nod, feeling like I’m being torn to shreds.
With her mother’s love and support, and the deep bond of friendship with her pal Molly, 17-year-old Samar has always been able to rise above the racial taunts that rumbled through her small city New Jersey childhood. She is committed to doing well at school and is as tied up with her boyfriend Mike and the usual high school cliques and gossip as any other teenager. In the fall of her graduating year, the twin towers in New York are destroyed and an uncle she has never met appears on her doorstep. Suddenly, she begins to wonder about her mother’s family and the father she never knew. Bullying, wrapped in self-righteous anger and fear, enters her life as boys she has known since grade school target her new-found, kind and generous uncle and the Sikh temple to which he belongs. An unauthorized visit to meet her grandparents pits her mother against her uncle, Sandeep, but a new Indian girl, Balvir, steers her toward more information about Sikhism and a clearer understanding about her family’s culture. Samar’s mother, Sharon, struggles with the impossibility of forgiving her parents their rigid, negative, controlling attitudes. Then the Sikh temple is fire-bombed, and Sandeep is badly injured as he confronts the boys who threaten Samar at a school dance. As Sandeep recuperates and the family begins to re-connect, Samar is accepted to Sarah Lawrence College, which welcomes differences.
Mid-teens will sympathize with Samar, an authentic present-day teen who is just trying to do her best, a girl who loves her steady mother but who yearns for the chaos she sees at her friend Molly’s house where she is welcomed into a hoard of cheerful Irish cousins, aunts and uncles who warm the heart. It is Samar’s emotional life, her rejection of the yummy but thoughtless boyfriend, and her curiosity about her past, that will keep them reading. Molly is the loyal, committed friend, there when Samar needs her with a shoulder to cry into and an understanding heart, not to mention a silly, humorous side that lightens the tone of this novel. Mike, the sexy boyfriend with his own struggles with an addictive mother whom he supports, has moved on beyond the high school scene and does not understand Samar’s changing life. Uncle Sandeep is somewhat idealized, and the reader sees him only in relationship with his family. Where he works or how he can come to Samar’s rescue at the drop of a hat, for example, is not explored. He is the sweet, older relative who eventually explains to Samar her mother’s disastrous marriage and her grandparents’ behaviour. The example of his constant attempts to be understanding does affect Samar’s approach to Bobbi, the high school queen bee whom she had before rejected out of hand. The wealthy grandparents are seen through their daughter’s eyes to be vicious control freaks, but, of course, in the end it is through their kind love that Samar begins to learn more about Indian food and culture. Samar’s mother, Sharon, has clearly been traumatized by her upbringing, taking a sharp right turn away from her background and cutting her family out of her life to keep her daughter safe. Forgiveness is not in her nature, and it is only through Samar’s glimpse into the horror that is Balvir’s life that the reader can accept the reality of Sharon’s bitterness and anger.
The small-city, American high school setting will be familiar to readers. Many of the scenes are set in the classroom as Samar’s sympathetic, knowledgeable teachers both lead discussions that expand the students’ world view and provide the fair, firm expectations that keep hysteria to a minimum. The many discussions over the 911 disaster prove once again how troubling this situation was to the American people and how difficult it was for them to define how they would treat not only terrorists but also foreign born Americans - a learning theme for Canadian students who manage to live together with many cultures, with much less suspicion. The Sikh temple is a quiet, calm centre of traditional culture which invites people to contemplate their place in the world, and its loss through a deliberately set fire is shocking. Samar, her friends and her uncle communicate through cell phones, but not texting. Samar’s internet searches about Sikhism, the blogs she discovers and her emails to others reflect the usual present day shorthand that will eventually date this novel, but which may, in the here and now, attract today’s teens.
Although the dialogue is up-to-date and clearly reveals character, much of Samar’s internal dialogue “tells” the details about Sikhism, and, especially, her thoughts about the development of her relationships and how she has to be like the coconut, strong and resilient.
The well-defined themes of racism, the acceptance of other cultures, the blending of older cultures with present day American life, forgiveness and friendship provide a rich background that will satisfy the intended reader.
Joan Marshall is a Winnipeg, MB, bookseller.
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