By Molly Moore
While on a class field trip to a New York City supermarket, Meena Joshi spies a box of okra, one of her favorite foods in her native India. Emblazoned with the word “KENTUCKY,” the box displays mountains that remind her of her childhood home. When her teacher offers the class a list of potential penpals, Meena selects an address from Kentucky, unintentionally finding a kindred soul.
“Same Sun Here,” by Silas House and Neela Vaswani, chronicles the coming-of-age correspondence between a pair of observant, reflective 12-year-old penpals. Letter by letter, River Dean Justice, a coal-miner’s son from the eastern Kentucky town of Black Banks, and Meena, an Indian immigrant living with her family in the tight confines of New York City’s Chinatown, open their worlds to each other.
House, an award-winning Appalachian author, associate professor at Berea College and Appalachian Voices board member, pens River’s letters, and Vaswani, an author and education activist in India and the U.S., voices Meena’s messages.
Meena and River write with bold honesty, honoring a pact to “be our true selves to each other.” River and Meena both have close ties with older women, and the pen pals share the wisdom they glean from these relationships. They talk about the effect on their families as their fathers, unable to find work near home, leave for weeks or months at a time. The distance from loved ones in India rests heavily on Meena, and as the pair grow close, they open up about their families in poignant, relatable anecdotes.
Soon after they build their friendship, larger societal forces shake their realities. River watches in outraged disbelief as mountaintop removal coal mining encroaches on his home and school. Shocked by the divide in his community, he learns the value of activism through his sage grandmother.
Meanwhile, tension grows in Chinatown as Meena’s hardworking family struggles with the questionable legal status of their rent-controlled apartment and tries to live under the radar of their calculating landlord. Diligently helping her parents prepare for their citizenship exam, Meena recognizes the joys and contradictions of their chosen home.
The mix of surprise, sadness and just determination that rises from these incidents tenderly portrays the adolescent journey from innocence to awareness. As times get tough, the two lean on each other and their dialogue evolves. Through frank, misconception-busting discussions about cultural stereotypes, River and Meena realize that, despite their differences, both of their communities are marginalized by larger society.
Bringing River and Meena to life, House and Vaswani write with an attention to detail and ear for the poetic that draws the reader into the crowded subway stations and libraries of New York City and the shaded woods of Appalachia. At times, the details and words chosen by the 12-year-old characters strain credulity, but these are nuances that also hook adult readers.
Written for grades 5 and up, “Same Sun Here” tackles complex societal ills in a thoughtful, uplifting story frame that will captivate readers regardless of age. Released in February, it is on bestseller lists in the South and Midwest.