The Way Home Looks Now by Wendy Wan-Long Shang. Scholastic, 2015. 272 pages.
What It Is: Middle grades historical fiction
What It’s About: Twelve year-old Peter Lee and his family are Taiwanese-Americans who love baseball, especially the Pittsburgh Pirates. When Peter’s older brother dies in a car wreck, though, Peter’s family falls apart. His mother spirals into depression, and, using their shared love of baseball, Peter tries desperately to help her break out of silence. His father seems stern and unyielding, but the reader comes to know–along with Peter–that really, the father has been the one holding the family together. And yes, baseball is part of that strategy.
What Works: Baseball is a terrific “tie that binds” in this story. This is not another book about a nerdy kid who loves math or loves to read. It’s about a baseball loving kid, a baseball loving culture, and baseball! This book is set during the Vietnam era; that plays a part, but the political elements are very much in the backdrop and kids today will resonate with the sports issues even if they don’t know/care about Vietnam. The Chinese-American dynamics are well done: it’s a factor in the family’s experience, but it’s not really the “point” of the book. This is not a “race issue” book. There’s also an interesting treatment of depression and its effects on the loved ones around the depressed person. Classic middle grades themes of: accepting others and learning to understand them/where they’re coming from even when they’re different from you, starting to separate your identity from that of your parents, struggling with adversity on your own but still with the family safety net all make an appearance. But the best part of this book is the development of the father and son’s relationship. The ending is perfect: hopeful, but not too neat an happy.
What Doesn’t Work: There are some over-used tropes in this book (such as: bully has a drunk father and lives in the poor community). There’s a gender equality angle (in sports) that sort of comes out nowhere, but the context fits, it’s well done, and both boys and girls will enjoy this angle of the story.
What I Think/Recommend: Definitely put this on your library/classroom shelves and point your sports-loving students its way. It’s a contemplative read in many respects, but the baseball parts are done well and will draw some of those readers along. It would also be a great book to discuss, especially the ways in which the dad loves his son, the ways the cultural divide between father and son manifest themselves, and the general awareness of depression and its effects. Not much eternal hope is offered here, but discussing the ways in which the dad loves and supports his family can easily be extended to more spiritual reflections.