Wednesday, 17 June 2015

I Read... Ru

Ru by Kim Thuy was the 2015 winner of Canada Reads.  Since this year's contest generated so much buzz and excitement, especially with the controversy over When Everything Feels Like the Movies, I knew that Ru would be a must-read.  When I read a brief summary of the book, I knew that I would be reading with a teacher's eye- is this something that I could teach to a Grade 12 class?  I'm always on the hunt for great novels to teach, particularly in English Language Arts 30-1.  It is difficult to find a balance between literature that is accessible, relatable and enjoyable while still being complex enough to write a critical analytical response on the summative diploma exam.

I found that Ru was a very quick read.  It is told in brief vignettes, which I think makes it easy to approach.  Even if I only had a few minutes to read, I knew that if I carried the novel around I would be able to fit in a piece here and there.

The story will be interesting for many students and easy for anyone with an immigrant story to relate to.  It follows the main character, Nguyen, though her childhood in post-war Vietnam.  Her life changes drastically as her once wealthy family learns to live with nothing.  The family flees Vietnam and heads to a crowded refugee camp in Malaysia.  The striking contrast between these two worlds was revealing to me, someone who has never had to leave my home behind to seek a new life.  The author holds nothing back, but Nguyen always has a balance of fear of the present and hope for the future.  Nguyen finally ends up in Quebec, where we get to see her life as a wife and mother.  Rather than move chronologically through these stages of Nguyen's life, the story shifts back and forth between the past and the present.  I was a bit concerned about this as it is sometimes difficult for students to keep track of this type of story (Death of a Salesman, anyone?).  I found it very easy, however, to keep track of the stage of the protagonist's life.  The reality of her life in the three stages portrayed are so starkly different that there was no confusion.

What struck me above all was the beautiful use of language.  I cannot remember the last time I read such a beautiful piece of prose.  Ru would be a wonderful text to use to show the artistry of language, even if only a few vignettes were pulled.  It made me wish that I could read French fluently as I would love to compare and contrast the original French text to the translated English version that I enjoyed.

I suspect that I would not teach Ru as a full novel to a Grade 12 class as I do think that it would be challenging for students to develop their own ideas about the book.  That said, I would certainly pull out excerpts from the novel for a variety of purposes- study of language, reading comprehension, study of a short text.

Food for thought... what award winning books stand out in your mind?

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