Reha feels torn between two worlds: school, where she’s the only Indian American student, and home, with her family’s traditions and holidays. But Reha’s parents don’t understand why she’s conflicted—they only notice when Reha doesn’t meet their strict expectations. Reha feels disconnected from her mother, or Amma, although their names are linked—Reha means “star” and Punam means “moon”—but they are a universe apart.
Then Reha finds out that her Amma is sick. Really sick.
Reha, who dreams of becoming a doctor even though she can’t stomach the sight of blood, is determined to make her Amma well again. She’ll be the perfect daughter, if it means saving her Amma’s life.
I don’t know what it is about this time of year that makes me more drawn to reading novels in verse. Perhaps it’s the contemplative and expressive autumn feels, or the release of Red (Taylor’s version), but whatever it is, I am so glad that it led me to pick up Red, White, and Whole by Rajani LaRocca. It is a middle grade novel in verse, and features our protagonist, Reha, who is an Indian-American girl who is a second generation immigrant living in the Midwest of the USA. When the book opens, her main emotional conflict is that she is torn between the community she has at school, where she sometimes feels “too Indian”, being one of the only Indian-American students, and home, where she sometimes feels “too American”. The author commented that this book draws directly on her personal experience as a teen growing up in the 1980s.
Part way into the book, in the middle of a small conflict with her parents where she is struggling to communicate her needs to them, she finds out that her mother has been diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia. Following the diagnosis, Reha first feels guilt, but it is too overwhelming for her to process with the rest of the feelings that rush in, and so she determines due to her parents’ goals and their family history, the way to assuage her guilt is to assume duty and virtue, which can be a common pattern due to the family values and dynamics her parents have told her about.
As a second generation immigrant who also grew up in an extremely White city with extremely White schools, many parts of Reha’s story resonated with me. At one point, a White classmate microaggresses her by asking “Do you speak Indian”, not knowing that Indian-Americans are not a monolith, and that in India there are different languages and dialects. However, she chose to eventually not clarify, as the thought of doing so was more exhausting than just ignoring or answering noncommittally.
However, she also has two best friends: Rachel, who she meets at school and is White, and Sunny (or Sunita), who is Indian-American. Reha also has a budding love interested named Pete who she meets at school through an assigned partner project and encourages her to express herself through listening to music and engage in other creative media. I was happy to see her create small communities for herself in which she feels understood and seen. As well, with these friends, the author addresses that sometimes not every friend can meet every need that a person has, and that is okay.
The author, Rajani LaRocca, is a currently and actively practicing doctor in the Boston area of the USA, and compared to my previous experience with doctors, I enjoyed her portrayal of Dr. Andrews, the primary doctor overseeing Punam’s care, in that she was compassionate, yet informative and straightforward. An example is when Reha was narrating how Dr. Andrews told her exactly what Acute Myeloid Leukemia meant and how they would potentially begin treatment. I am glad that Punam found a doctor who cared for her in this way, because unfortunately in real life it is not always that way, as racism and sexism abound in medical care. The author’s bio on her website says that books inspired her to personally become a doctor, so that gives me hope for the industry, as I am always waiting for change in medicine.
One of my favorite (and I guess least favorite) parts of Red, White, and Whole is the dynamics of the mother-daughter relationship and the process of repair of miscommunication, especially from generational differences and intergenerational and immigration related trauma. The author shows that repair is not always linear, and does not always look the same for everyone, and that closure is sometimes not clear-cut. The resolution is a sad one, and I for sure shed some tears.
I’m also going to ask my daughter if I can give her a big, long hug.
MY CONCLUSION: RECOMMENDED
If you are in the mood to break your own heart, and quickly, I might add, due to this book being written in verse, I definitely recommend Red, White, and Whole. The story is definitely incredibly sad, but covers so much in so few words, and is beautiful in its grief.
Is this book for you?
Premise in a sentence: Reha, an Indian-American girl, who is struggling with feeling caught between two cultures, is told that her mother has been diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia.
Perfect for: Readers who enjoy stories with second-generation immigrant protagonists, and are ready to get their hearts broken
Think twice if: You are not in the mood to feel sad
Genre: Middle grade contemporary in verse
Trigger/content warning: Cancer, illness, death, immigrant and intergenerational trauma, racial microaggressions (challenged)