Study Guide

A Step from Heaven Violence

By An Na

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Her lips pinch tight, then she hides with Uhmma and me. Because when Apa is too quiet with the squinty eye, it is better to hide until he falls asleep or else there will be breaking everywhere. Halmoni always says, That Apa of yours needs a good spanking. If only your Harabugi had not passed away. (2.4)

Apa hasn't even done anything violent yet and already we know he's someone even his mother (Halmoni) fears. What she tells Young Ju though, has to make you wonder: does Apa just need "a good spanking" from his father (Harabugi), or is Apa way beyond that?

Apa turns and faces Uhmma. He points to her stomach. Look at us now. This is all your fault. You hear me? Your fault I had to take a second job picking up those lawyers' trash like some beggar. In Korea at least I had my own boat. What was so bad about that life? (9.12)

Pro tip: if anyone ever says that something is "all your fault"—run. Other things to note: Apa may not come out and say that Uhmma's pregnancy is her fault too, but there's definitely that feeling since he's pointing to her stomach when he says the words "This is all your fault." Apa is also not the kind of guy who likes to take responsibility for decisions he's made… kind of like a big kid, only with more muscle.

I do not see Apa's hand. It is too fast. I only hear the slap, loud as breaking glass. I bite my bottom lip. Hard. I cannot cry. It will only make it worse. I close my eyes and start to pray, Please, God, please make everything better. What did I say, Apa yells. Slap. I open my eyes and look at Uhmma. She covers her lips with her hand. A little blood comes out from between her fingers. My tears are falling onto my knees. I hold my breath so I will not cry out. (9.22-25)

Are you confused about who's getting hit? Good, because we think that's kind of the point of this passage. Young Ju acts as if she's the one getting hit, not Uhmma, which just goes to show how much Young Ju absorbs when she witnesses her mom getting hit. It's like she can't detach herself from the scene.

What did I say? Apa asks Uhmma. Uhmma looks straight at the house, her hand covering her lip. She does not answer. Apa leans close to Uhmma. Face to face. His eyes squint thin as paper. He takes the used-up cigarette from his lips and holds it between his thumb and finger. Please, Uhmma, I say in my head. Please say it. Please. Please. Please. Uhmma takes away her hand. Blood drips down her chin. Her lips are broken grapes. She says with eyes closed, It is not forever. (9.26-29)

Ever wonder how a victim of domestic violence can lose her will? Here's a classic example. Apa abuses Uhmma in at least three different ways: verbally, physically, and psychologically. And now there's this scene, where all he has to do is get really close to Uhmma to get her to parrot his words.

The crashing is loud and strong. I plug my ears but can still hear Apa's loud yelling. Who do you think you are? Questioning me. Slap. Stop it, I say to myself. Go out there and stop it. But I do nothing. Say nothing. Only listen to the walls like a shameful mouse. (21.9-10)

If you're feeling bad for Young Ju, you're not alone. Poor Young Ju feels all this responsibility to stop her dad from beating her mom even though she's a small child. Here's a question though: what should a small child do when she witnesses her father beating her mother? Is there a right way to react?

The coffee table is overturned, Korean newspaper strewn all over the carpet. The smell of Apa's alcohol breath soaks the air. I pick up a broken picture frame, the photo of our family at the airport in Korea slightly skewed, and set it on the couch. (21.14)

Sometimes this book gets to be a bit much. A "broken picture frame, the photo of our family […] slightly skewed"? Sounds like the author reached into a big grab bag of domestic violence clichés for this metaphor of a broken family...

I take small, careful steps, avoiding any glances at Uhmma or Joon. I stop when I see Apa's gold-toe socks. You, Apa shouts and hits the side of my head with his knuckles, will never question me. Arrows of pain shoot through my head, making me squint. Find a corner of the carpet. Concentrate. Float away. (23.74-76)

Finally Apa takes his anger out on Young Ju—not that we've been waiting for this moment exactly, but we kind of saw it coming. Note that the way Young Ju deals with her own pain versus the way she deals with her mother's pain is kind of different. Here she just tries to numb herself to the pain and mentally escape the scene.

Why does Apa do it? I ask again, louder. Uhmma slouches against the dresser. She puts down the lipstick. Uhmma says softly, There are some things you do not know about your Apa. I wait for her to continue. He is a very prideful man, Uhmma says. So he has to hit us, I say and turn my face away. Young Ju, you are too young to understand. Uhmma sighs deep from the source of her pain. He was so different when we first met, Uhmma says. He is still very upset over the death of your Halmoni. That is no excuse, I say. (26.58-64)

Is there ever an excuse for violent behavior? Here Uhmma's trying to explain (perhaps even justify) Apa's actions, but Young Ju just isn't having it. You've got to feel for Uhmma though—it has to be hard to see the man she fell in love with turn out so differently.

The rain of blows on my face, shoulders, and head forces my body to the ground. My hands slide into the shag carpet. I pretend I am drowning, letting the sea take me under. I close my eyes and the world cannot touch me. You are going to kill her! Uhmma shouts. Get away from me, woman, Apa growls. This is all your fault. Look at what kind of daughter you have raised, always lying and sneaking around. She is just like you. Apa kicks me in the stomach. I barely feel the blow. I am already floating away. (27.31-33)

We're getting to the turning point of the story here. This is the most amount of violence Young Ju has had to deal with from Apa, which is why Uhmma steps in and tries to intercede. You know a scene like this can't end happily...

I pick up the phone and raise it to my ear. "Please," I whisper and take a gulp of air. "Send help."

"Tell me what is going on, miss."

"My father is killing my mother." (27.49-51)

And here we are: the turning point of the book. It's kind of late, but finally someone (in this case, Young Ju) calls for help. There's no turning back now...

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