© Jordan B. Nielsen, 2012

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Reviewed by Jordan B. Nielsen 

Recommended for: Both boys and girls ages 10 and Up for discussion of racism, troubled family life and general maturity of themes. The narrative is split between a male and female character making it relatable to either gender.

One Word Summary: Ebullient.

Same Sun Here by Silas House and Neela Vaswani is like a blast of air conditioning from an open door on a baking hot Manhattan day, at once refreshing, relieving, sweet and enlivening. With easy, commanding authority the authors wholly embody the voices of their two characters, far-flung pen pals River and Meena, delivering a story that wrenches the reader with its honesty, clarity and verve.

Told as a series of letters, and a few emails, Same Sun Here is the story of two utterly different lives joined by a common spirit and a class project. Twelve-year-old River Dean Justice lives in a tiny town near the

Same Sun Here

By Silas House and Neela Vaswani

mountains of Kentucky  under the care of his spitfire grandmother, ‘Mawmaw’, the only liberal in the state. River’s father was laid off by the coal mining company and had to move south to find work to keep the family afloat. Soon after, River’s mother became crippled by devastating migraines which sapped her strength and her capacity to care for her son. Though he adores his Mawmaw, River longs for the time when his family was whole and everyone was happy. Thousands of miles north in New York City, Meena Joshi is an Indian immigrant squatting in a one-bedroom apartment with her parents and brother in Chinatown. Meena was also raised by her grandmother, ‘Dadi’, in a mountain town in India because her parents could only afford to bring one child to America with them. It wasn’t until Meena was ten years old that she was reunited with her parents whom she didn’t even recognize, so long had it been since she’d seen them. Now in America, Meena’s father also has to move to another state to find work.

The two are paired as pen pals in the summer of 2008, and politics are at the forefront of everyone’s minds. With the historic election of Barack Obama ahead of them, conversations about race seem to touch everyone, particularly Meena and River. Through their letters, which span the course of ten months, we learn of both the large and small-scale problems that are shaping each of their worlds. Not only is River’s home life divided, but a Mountain Top Removal project (a mining process that literally blasts off the top of a mountain to reveal coal seams) is ripping his town apart as well, physically and ideologically. Runoff from the project pollutes the rivers and jeopardizes the safety of the citizens below, but the more seismic divide erupts between those who oppose the project for its environmental hazards (like River’s Mawmaw who turns community organizer to try to stop the project) and those who support the project because it brings much needed jobs to their town.

In New York, Meena and her parents are applying for American citizenship. Though excited by the opportunities that her new country has to offer, Meena is homesick for her lush town in India, and for her grandmother who was left behind. At every turn the culture of America seems to reject her, as ignorant strangers accuse her of being a terrorist, and the hovering landlord applies cruel tactics to push her and her neighbors out of their rent controlled apartments. The moral ambiguity of being an immigrant and squatting illegally in someone else’s apartment weighs on Meena and makes it that much harder to acclimate to her new country. Even at home Meena feels out of place as she begins to question how her parents could have just left her in India for so many years.  

As dramatic and fascinatingly nuanced as those plot points are, the heart of the story and what makes Same Sun Here so successful is the relationship that develops between River and Meena. Against this socio-political backdrop, they are just two kids trying to figure it all out. Each feels like an outsider in their own way, but through their letters they find commonality in their shared curiosity about one another and the world around them. We can be our “true selves” with one another, Meena and River continually say. There is a naïve purity to their interactions that is truly beautiful to experience as they question and learn from one another, free from judgment. Well, nearly free from judgment. Meena does attempt to tell River about the first time she shaved her legs which River was none to thrilled to read about, a segment that elicits some good laughs.

As letters, the story is obviously written in the first person, alternating between the two perspectives and the authors must be commended for the voicing of the two characters, which are richly real and never falter. These feel like letters from children, full of poor grammar and slang and the kind of well-meaning bluntness you can only find in people of this age. I’m unaware of how the authors worked together to create this story, I’d imagine that Neela Vaswani wrote the letters from Meena, and Silas House wrote River’s (but gee wouldn’t it be neat if the opposite were true?) but whatever the process, it’s the truth in the voicing that really wins the book.

An instant entrant into our Golden Key Collection, Same Sun Here is a celebration of our diversity and the human capacity to find commonality over any divide. A story infused with hope and wonderment that’s sure to be a shoe-in for some big awards this season, Same Sun Here is a true delight that’s not to be missed. 

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