Love and (bad) luck: A multigenerational family’s trials



By Cynthia Kadohata (Chicago: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2014, 304 pp., $7.99, paperback)


Kouun is “good luck” in Japanese, and one year my family had none of it. 

At 12 years old, Summer carries the worries of the family with her as she and her brother spend the harvest season with their grandparents, who have offered to help make ends meet when their parents are called to Japan. While she first surmises that bad luck overshadows the family and so much of life feels out of her control, like her malaria and overwhelming fear of mosquitoes, or her brother Jaz who can’t seem to make any friends, and the impending rain that could be doom for the wheat harvest, Summer finds ways to help. She steps in as cook for the workers when Baachan’s (grandmother)  debilitating back pain worsens, and rides along on the tractor with Jiichan (grandfather) who nearly falls over from the demanding 15-hour work shift. While there is much work to be done, she does take notice of the boss’s cute grandson and despite her grandmother’s warning, things get messy. 

“The Thing About Luck” is a delightful read that offers humor, warmth, and wisdom as the days of harvest unfold. Cynthia Kadohata delivers an honesty and openness through Summer and cleverly navigates cultural nuances expressed through the exchange Summer has with her Japanese grandparents. When her Baachan hears of the trouble Summer is in, she insists, “Hara (stomach/gut) tell me all I need to know…” Or she groans, “Ah, kita makura!” when she is upset that her head is facing north which is bad luck according to Japanese superstition. 

When Jaz can’t sleep, Jiichan shares, “When I live in Wakayama-ken, I get lost. I walk, but I think of school instead of think of walk. Then I don’t know where I am.” He describes a frightening night where he cannot find his way and falls asleep in the mandarin orange orchard. “My parents find me next day. They say school number one important, but even number one you don’t have to think of all the time. When you walk, think of walk.

Summer tries to emanate the teachings from Jiichan who told her if she put love into her cooking, the food would be healthier. She narrates, “I held my open palms over the potatoes and thought, Love, love, love. I really concentrated. But as hard as I concentrated, I just couldn’t feel love for those potatoes.” Jaz can’t help but laugh at his sister when she explains what she is doing, which prompts her to laugh. Summer and Jaz bicker as siblings do, but tender moments shine through.

Kadohata teaches us about determination — as Summer musters up courage to help with the harvesting when her aging grandparents struggle to keep up, and is surprised to discover the satisfaction that comes from hard work. “The Thing About Luck” should be at the top of a young person’s summer reading to get lost in the wheat fields and imagine what it’s like growing up in a migrant family. Even adults will enjoy being transported to another place, where different generations work side by side, share meals, converse late at night, and learn about life. 

Cynthia Kadohata is the winner of the National Book Award in 2013 for “The Thing About Luck.” She is the author of the Newberry Medal-winning book “Kira-Kira,” the Jane Addams Peace Award and Pen USA Award winner “Weedflower, Cracker!,” “Outside Beauty,” “A Million Shades of Gray,” and several critically acclaimed adult novels, including “The Floating World.”

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