Same Sun Here, co-written by Silas House and Neela Vaswani, was released in 2012. This book follows the pen pal friendship of two young people from very different backgrounds living very different lives. Meena is an immigrant from India living with her family illegally in a rent controlled apartment in New York City’s Chinatown. River is a young boy living in semi-rural Kentucky in a house with his mother and grandmother. Both families have absent fathers that must live away for work. Both kids deal with extreme hardship and situations beyond their age. Meena struggles with the complications of being an alien and dealing with persecution from landlords. River struggles with mountaintop removal mining moving into his community. Through letters exchanged, the two young people learn to look at the world, and people, with new eyes. They disagree, explore, and bond in a way that allows each to move through their circumstances differently.
The opening of the novel covers the introduction of Meena and River. They have drawn each others name for a school pen pal assignment. They exchange several letters with various details about themselves, their families, homes, interests, and lives. It takes both Meena and River a little time to grow used to each other. They come from such different backgrounds that little disagreements and frustrations are inevitable. Before too long, River is describing how mountaintop removal coal mining has come to his hometown. His strong connection with nature makes this destructive mining upsetting to River. He finds himself in trouble at school for asking questions but with the support of his grandmother he stands up for the mountains he loves. Meena’s never seen Kentucky or mountaintop removal but, being from India, she has her fair share of stories to swap with River. She speaks on the women activists who stopped the cutting down of trees in the mountains. Meena also mentions how her family initially had to leave their home because of the building of a large dam meant to power far off Delhi. River is able to learn more about what the world is like beyond Appalachia through Meena’s experiences. Her family is living in a rent controlled apartment secretly. The residents of the Chinatown apartment are discriminated against for being immigrants. River would never have encountered issues like this without his interactions with Meena. Both friends share thoughts on the upcoming Obama elections. This places the novel in a specific time for readers, thus lending, in some ways, to its implied credibility. Meena’s parents are working on a citizenship class. Mid way through the novel, each pen pal has an experience that changes the tone of the novel and their relationship. Meena’s beloved grandmother, Dadi, dies alone in India. Meena’s resentment with being left by her parents with Dadi in India for seven years comes to a head and she has a big fight with her mother. Back down in Kentucky, River’s school is pummeled by three tons of boulders from the strip mine above town, resulting in several injuries and lots of publicity. It is a time of awakening for River’s mother, who has been dealing with depression. River’s close friend, Mark, has to have his leg amputated as a result of his injuries. This is the moment River gets serious about stopping mountaintop removal. In response to the accident at the school, community members travel to Frankfort to hold a rally and take their demands to the governor. The crucial moment occurs when the governor claims he will drink water from any stream in Kentucky (as a sign coal mining doesn’t cause pollution), River steps forward with the yellowed water from his stream. The governor shies away, but the image of River holding out his jar gains national attention. Not long after, Meena’s family, along with all of the rent controlled tenants, is evicted. It is time for the family to come together and Meena tells River know that all will be well. Especially because River’s publicity has rewarded him with a trip to New York. The book concludes with the hope that after numerous letters, the, now, best friends will finally be able to meet in person.
This novel is aimed at young adult readers. The simple language and age of the protagonists make it clear. The book, in reality, is only half Appalachian. Both House and Vaswani bring the unique and authentic voice of their own experience to the characters. For the sake of this analysis, we will focus mostly on the character of River and his experiences in Kentucky. In the novel, River is a decently familiar figure to readers who have studied Appalachian children’s literature. He loves his life in the woods. He has a strong bond with his family, particularly his grandmother, whom he looks up to, especially in light of his absent father and sick mother. When describing his life in Kentucky to his pen pal, River explains, “Almost every day we climb the path up the mountain and she tells me the names of all the trees, or we go along very quiet and watch the ground for treasures. We have a nature collection that has things in it like feathers from blue jays and redbirds, chips of quartz, buckeyes, acorns, hickory nuts, and lots more” (14). River, like so many youth from the mountains, feels a connection to the land and the objects that live there. This sets him up for a shock when he begins to understand the impact of mountaintop removal. It almost takes a character like River, who has a love for nature, to contrast the atrocities of mountaintop removal and make the destruction emotional to the reader. It is by reading of River, and his grandmother’s, response that we begin to feel the emotional impact of the physical removal of swatches of mountain land. House and Vaswani do an impressive job of making the character of River relatable to the reader. He is curious, argumentative, and opinionated like most young people. By building him into someone we might know, the authors successfully make him a character we root for. This becomes especially powerful in the aftermath of the rock slide on the school. Because the authors had built up a love and appreciation of River in the minds of the reader, the landslide and resulting injury is upsetting. The reader feels River’s pain for his friend and home. This sets the stage for the reader to better accept River’s next move. This book leaves the impression that a little action can make a big impact. Both River and Meena learn so much about humanity by taking the time to get to know each other. They come from completely different cultures but become best friends by acknowledging those qualities that make them similar, rather than dwelling on the qualities that make them different.
Overall, Same Sun Here is a modest, if idealistic, portrayal of growing up and dealing with the changing face of life in Appalachia. I enjoyed reading this book. It feels wholesome yet still deals with heavier issues like the environment, mental health, and death. By placing the point of view with the twelve year olds, the reader is able to approach these events with the innocence of youth. The form of the writing, as letters, allows the reader to build a relationship with the characters and get to know them at the same time they are getting to know each other. Character traits are revealed alongside action. There is no overhead narrator asking the reader to trust their analysis of the characters; we form our own opinions and also share the thoughts of the two protagonists. The authors are able to “get into the head” of the characters without the use of a narrator because children are more prone to say what they think. By using letters we get the impression that both Meena and River are being honest.
In conclusion, the authors use the letter format to introduce two relatable characters learning about each other and the world they are living in. This novel deals with tough happenings with the resilience known to children. It stresses the importance of overcoming stereotypes and seeking relationships with those who are different from you. Same Sun Here implies that it is only by understanding others that we will begin to understand, and be confident in, ourselves.