Our family always enjoys audio books on car trips, and we listened to a very different sort of story during our holiday trips to visit family. A Million Shades of Gray by Cynthia Kadohata is set in Vietnam during the war in the 1970’s and presents a picture of a place and a time that none of us knew much about before listening.
Thirteen year-old Y’Tin wants to be an elephant trainer, and he is already well on his way as the youngest trainer in his village in the jungles of Vietnam. He loves the elephants, especially Lady. Here, at eleven, he learns that his mentor, fourteen year-old Tomas, will let him ride Lady into the village that day:
Tomas looked at him thoughtfully. “I think you want to be an elephant handler even more than I once did.”
“Sure thing,” Y’Tin said in English. He had learned that from one of the American Special Forces soldiers his father knew. The Americans had many words for “yes.” “Sure,” “okay.,” “right,” “affirmative,” ”absolutely,” “yeah,” “check,” “roger that,” and “sure do, tennis shoe” came immediately to mind.
Y’Tin walked around to Lady’s trunk to have a talk with her. “I’m going to ride you in today, Lady. Behave yourself.”
As if in answer, Lady pushed him to the ground with her trunk. And wouldn’t let him up. It was embarrassing. He tried to get away, but Lady was too strong. “Tomas,” he said, “uh, can you help me?”
Soon after, the Americans pull out of Vietnam, and Y’Tin’s village and people are suddenly in danger from the North Vietnamese. Y’Tin’s bravery is put to the test, as he must decide whether to stay with his people, held captive in his village, or try to escape into the jungle where he might be able to save the elephants.
Throughout the novel, Y’Tin’s relationship with Lady grows and develops into a special kind of trust, but Y’Tin’s friends and family are also dear to him, and he wants to protect all of them. There are no easy choices.
This book is recommended for ages 9 – 12, and the audio actually says “8 and up” on the package, but we all agreed that some scenes would probably be too disturbing for the younger side of that range. The novel takes place during a war and accurately depicts some of the terror and violence inherent in war, including the loss of people close to Y’Tin. Of course, all kids are different in maturity level, but I’m guessing that 10 and up would be a bit more appropriate for an age recommendation, and certainly young teens will also enjoy this book.
A Million Shades of Gray transports the reader to a unique place and time and shows an interesting perspective of how some of the Vietnamese people may have viewed American involvement in the war. It’s also about growing up, within the distinctive environment Y’Tin lives, and about relationships and, of course, about the elephants themselves. We all enjoyed this unusual tale.
Simon & Schuster Audio