Friday, September 17, 2010

Finding My Voice by Marie G. Lee

Finding My Voice by Marie G. Lee

This is the second of my reviews for the Banned Book Challenge. Go to the main post on StephSuReads' site here and my post discussing the challenge here.


Ellen Sung's senior year at a small Minnesota high school begins inauspiciously: on the first day of school a blond jock calls her "chink." The younger daughter of her town's only Korean-American family, Ellen is apparently unfamiliar with bigotry and seems unprepared when other classmates taunt her and a teacher makes racist jokes. But Ellen has other worries--fulfilling her father's expectations that she get into Harvard, like her perfect sister; earning a varsity letter for gymnastics; wondering why Tomper Sandel kissed her at a party but started going out with someone else. If Lee's story line is somewhat familiar, her portrayal of her heroine is unusually well balanced. Ellen may be too scared to confront the local bigots and not yet secure enough to stand up to her exacting parents, but she's steely in other ways. She works hard--and unapologetically--to maintain her 4.0 average, and she conducts her relationship with Tomper with an easy dignity. The author's depiction of first-generation anxieties demonstrates similar depth and candor, two hallmarks of this sensitive novel. (courtesy of Amazon)


Ellen is torn between two worlds. Her parents expect her to be obedient, get straight-A's, go to Harvard, and become a doctor. Ellen doesn't know what she wants. She wants to make her parents proud and live up to their impossibly high expectations. Yet she also wants to go to parties, do gymnastics, have a a typical American teenager. This would make life hard for any teen. Ellen faces the additional pressure of growing up as the only Asian teen (other than her sister) in her small town in the Iron Range. The Iron Range of Minnesota is located in the northeast corner of the state; this rural mining area is not known for its racial diversity. Ellen's classmates and teachers frequently make little racist comments to needle her and even escalate into ugly hostility.

Finding My Voice was an "okay" book. The plot was an interesting coming-of-age story, and it read quickly. But I just didn't believe a lot of it. I did believe the racial hostility. I can't imagine how difficult it must have been for the author to grow up in rural Minnesota in the 1970s and 1980s. I'm sure blatant racism was a common occurrence throughout her youth. With the exception of one incident at the end of the book which I thought was overdone, the depictions of racism seemed unfortunately realistic.

My problem with the book is hard to define in one sentence. Ellen has lived in this little town her entire life. Even if she is the only Asian kid, you'd think her classmates would be used to her by now. The book reads as if the hostility is something new, and Ellen's classmates don't seem to know her very well. By the time I was a senior in high school, I knew everything about my classmates, and I went to a large school. Also, when I was a senior, most of the teasing stopped. 18-year-old kids aren't as interested in terrorizing their peers than 15-year-olds. Ellen seemed very unsure of herself for being a senior in high school. Granted, many 18-year-olds have no idea what they want to do with their lives, but most have a better sense of themselves than Ellen. I feel like this book would be more realistic if Ellen had been in 8th or 9th grade.

I read this book for the Banned Books Challenge. I can see why some people object to this book. There are numerous racial slurs, moderate swearing, and several depictions of teenage drinking. But banning the book seems pretty extreme. The most offensive part of the book is the racism. Despite its ugliness, experiencing racism alongside a character is far more education than simply reading about racism in a history book. Plus, the swearing and alcohol is minor in comparison to many YA books.

Finding My Voice is an interesting depiction of a Korean-American girl trying to find her place with negative pressure coming at her from her classmates and overbearing (albeit well-meaning) parents. I don't know that I'd recommend the book to others if I could find any alternatives. The concept is good, but the execution is a little lacking.

Rating: 2.5 / 5


  1. Amazing the books that get banned and as for the reasons why - I'm speechless.

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  3. Like the author, I grew up in an all-white town and was always made to feel dumb for being Asian. I like this book because it explores the complexities of being a person of color, having immigrant parents, and so forth. It doesn't try to "teach" things, but one comes away with a better understanding of racism and why it's so insidious. I at first wasn't interested in the book because it looked like a "kid's" book, but I think adults can enjoy it, too.
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