Review: A book about us
Author’s experiences at Paly make for a powerful and emotional story
May 26, 2023
Jokes about the Caltrain train run rampant at Palo Alto High School. It feels like every day I hear someone crack a witty remark about how stressed they are, and how a solution is just right on the edge of campus. Still, I believe every Paly student harbors a deeply rooted fear of the massive vehicles that zoom past our campus many times a day, because we’ve all imagined hearing the very worst news — that it has taken another life.
Author Joanna Ho perfectly captures this climate in her debut young adult novel “The Silence that Binds Us,” in which Maybelline Chen navigates life at a school similar to Paly after her brother’s suicide by train. The resemblance to our own school is no coincidence — Ho is a Paly graduate herself, and came back to campus to speak on May 24.
Ho, who works as an assistant principal at Eastside College Preparatory School in East Palo Alto, has published several children’s books that include diverse representation, as Anthro covered in our Spring 2022 issue. Her books “Eyes that Kiss in the Corners” and “Eyes that Speak to the Stars” are New York Times bestsellers, and Ho has won awards such as Asian/Pacific American Award for Children’s Literature Honor. Through The Silence that Binds Us, Ho has branched out from children’s novels into young adult fiction, allowing her to broach heavier topics.
I read the novel after interviewing Ho last year and was amazed by the accuracy and complexity with which she wrote about mental health and racial issues. Maybelline, or May, and her older brother Danny have a close relationship before Danny dies by suicide right after being accepted into Princeton. May and her parents are left heartbroken and their relationship with each other crumbles as they each fall into their own coping methods.
May’s grief is encapsulated by quotes like “Without my anchor, I floated on an endless ocean under a starless sky. I bobbed up and down. Up and down. I drifted with no thought or direction. Darkness here was the same as darkness there. There was darkness everywhere.” In these words, and throughout the book, I felt my own heart sinking as I imagined the pain felt by May and her family.
In these words, and throughout the book, I felt my own heart sinking as I imagined the pain felt by May and her family.
Alongside mental health, racism is a central theme in the novel. At a school event, parents of other students at the school claim that rampant stress among students is the fault of Asian parents, and indirectly blame May’s parents for Danny’s suicide.
One parent says: “This [suicides] never used to be a problem before. It only started happening when Asian families moved in. We all know that last year, some Asian kid got into Princeton and then killed himself on the tracks. I mean, come on. What did his parents say to him? If Princeton isn’t good enough for these people, then what is?”
The main plot follows May banding together with her best friends to speak out against the racism spouted by parents and creating a community project in which many students tell their own stories. The characters are forced to contemplate how much taking a stand means to them when May’s mother’s job is put at risk because of May’s activism and when some of their friends almost abandon the project when the school threatens consequences.
As the book goes on, May heals. She never stops mourning Danny, but she repairs the broken bonds with her parents and finds purpose again through her advocacy against the racism her Asian community was facing. Ho’s balance between discussing emotional and controversial topics while creating strong characters and plotlines was perfect.
This book is heart-wrenching, but I found the conclusion satisfying and hopeful. In every scene, even without specific references to Palo Alto, I envisioned the characters moving through the Paly campus, which made the book so much more close-to-home and moving.