By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
If ever there were a situation where the phrase “you can’t go home again” would apply, it would be in Many Ly’s second novel for young adults, “Roots and Wings.” Though the phrase should probably be altered to “you can go home again, but prepare to be reminded of why you left.”
Told from the perspective of Grace, the story’s 14-year-old protagonist, “Roots and Wings” is about coming to terms with and accepting one’s past for what it is and not allowing it to dictate one’s future.
After Grace’s grandmother dies, she and her mother travel to St. Petersburg, Fla. — the city they moved from before Grace was born — so her grandmother could have a proper Cambodian funeral. Despite the somber reason for their trip, Grace can’t help but feel excited. Not only does she hope to learn more about her father, but she also hopes to meet him.
All she knows about him is what her mother has told her: “He’s gone. And he is not coming back.” Grace doesn’t even know his name but is convinced that if he’d known about her, then it would have fixed all of the problems in her small family — including the fact that her mother was never married, not even when she became pregnant, which was the reason they left “St. Pete” in the first place.
Ly paints a very accurate picture of the adolescent insistence of always being right (yet misunderstood) that teenagers, both past and present, are able to relate to. Instead of seeming whiny, readers understand Grace’s need to know more about her heritage and empathize with her feelings of coming up short in her mother’s eyes — the perfect daughter who paid the bills and talked to the doctors on her mother’s behalf. The opportunity that Grace has been waiting for to prove that she is right about her father is finally presented to her in St. Petersburg and she takes full advantage.
In the close knit Cambodian American community, Grace learns more about her family’s history than she ever imagined — even some things she wishes she could unlearn; she also learns why her mother never wanted to return as she experiences, firsthand, a clashing of cultures more intense than she ever experienced in Scottsville, Pa., where growing up, she has never even seen another Cambodian family.
Separated from other Cambodians and with a mother who grew up more American than Cambodian, Grace doesn’t know many cultural traditions and begins to learn more about them. For someone who has grown up in a community like the one described in St. Petersburg, the explanations of traditions Ly provides may become redundant, but to others, like Grace, they give great insight into a culture that doesn’t receive as much attention as other Asian cultures.
The ending of “Roots and Wings” is predictable in that by her grandmother’s funeral, Grace learns the truth about her parents’ relationship and what has happened to her father since. She comes to understand her mother’s and grandmother’s choices in how they raised their family. However, this happens in a way that is believable.
Grace’s situation is one that anybody can relate to, regardless of their background, because a lot of the conflict revolves around traditions and superstitions that older generations hang onto — without always knowing why — and younger generations want to break away from because they don’t apply to things in this day and age.
It’s a matter of having roots to remind you of where you came from and wings to fly free and become who you’re meant to be. ♦
ìRoots and Wingsî by Many Ly is published by Delacorte Books, 2008.
Samantha Pak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.