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Letters About Literature National Winners 2006

National Winner, Level 3: Jeehyun Choi

Dear Mr. Hedges,

My mom isn't fat. My dad didn't commit suicide. My sister isn't mentally retarded. And I certainly don't live in a little Iowan town with two grocery stores. But I connected with your book What's Eating Gilbert Grape. Because I am a youth and do have a family--a family with its highs and lows, a family that bickers and rejoices--just like Gilbert's family.

I read What's Eating Gilbert Grape at the end of a hot, sticky summer, shortly after my dad had left for Korea, not to return until December. My sister was going through adolescence wrapped in punk music and veils that no one could penetrate, like Ellen. I spent day after day in my room to avoid arguing with my mom. Even though I felt my family drift apart, I blamed it on their lack of understanding. On top of that, I was depressed and confused about the crossroads I stood at. I was ambitious to do great things after high school but was scared of the fog that shrouded the path I might choose.

Therefore, when I started this book and realized that the central character, Gilbert Grape, is someone who 'did nothing after high school,' I was quite disappointed. At first sight, he seemed pessimistic, uncertain and listless. It was as if he already acquiesced to a hapless fate. And his family was worse: a bunch of hopeless people with innumerable problems! I scorned the images of these clownish, almost grotesque characters. Frustrated, I stopped reading before chapter eight.

But soon after, I realized that I couldn't stop thinking of the broken Grape family, especially Gilbert. Momma's yells rang in my ears, along with Arnie's high, distorted voice. Every moment when there were raised voices within my own family, I kept relating to the Grapes. Their incessant voices drove me to pick up the book again.

This time, I was sucked into the story like a ship in a whirlpool. As I shadowed Gilbert's life in Endora, I slowly grew attached to him; he is the most humane character I have ever come across in a book. He is honest but has secrets. He carries love with hatred, he feels loneliness with solitude, and he has gentleness in anger. How can any character be more realistic? And furthermore, like me, he hasn't found his identity. Although we lived in totally different situations, his thoughts and fears were the mirror image of my own. He was me.

Through Gilbert's healing, I believe that I gained a better understanding of myself. As he fell in love with Becky and released his compressed and complex emotions bit by bit, I earnestly cheered for him to let go. I cried as he tried to laugh away his painful childhood memories of his father's death. My tears gave way to the realization that he faced the same obstacle that I did: the fear of remembering the past and revealing the person who I was, who I am and who I might be. On the other hand, I could not resist secretly smiling when Gilbert hit Arnie, the one who 'nobody hits' because it was beautiful in a sense--the subtle catharsis after endless heroism and a saintly devotion. He refused to let remorse or anger eat him away, but instead learned how to fight against them. It was a triumph.

I followed Gilbert's progress towards fully embracing his family with a lump in my throat. I was utterly touched to see him take on so many burdens and still manage to save room for genuine love. His relationship with Ellen gave me a chance to reflect on my distant attitude towards my own sister. At the end of the book, when he finally embraces his sister, I too approached my sister with open arms. When I did, it brought laughter and warmth back to both of our hearts. Thank you, Mr. Hedges, for reminding me how much I love my family at a time when I was detached from them. Through your book I learned how to understand their faults rather than to blame and to love each of them for whom they are. Furthermore, I also discovered that there isn't a single way to a beautiful life because life comes in countless different hues, with the small things that matter.

At the end of a hot, sticky summer that could have drained hope, I found courage in the name of Gilbert Grape.

Jeehyun Choi
St. Paul, Minnesota