The Girl Who Wrote in Silk, Kelli Estes, narrator Emily Woo Zeller

gilrThis novel begins with two seemingly unconnected stories. One takes place in the past, beginning near the end of the 19th century and moving forward for about a decade into the 20th; the other takes place in the present time, presumably the 21st century and proceeds forward over only a few months. The story alternates between the two main characters.
The first important character is Mei Lien (Lui Mei Lien). She is 17, lives in Seattle with her father and grandmother, dresses as a boy because the environment in which she lives is less safe for young Asian females, and is quite content with her life. She helps her father in his shop in the mornings, and in the afternoons she and her grandmother make beautiful embroidered purses to earn extra money. They are very close. Although they barely have enough to get by, they seem quite happy. They honor their elders and the memory of their ancestors while following the customs of their heritage, keeping its folklore alive. Mei Lien’s grandmother teaches her the skills she will need to be a good wife and mother.
The second, in the present day, is Inara Erickson. She is 24, with a newly acquired Master’s degree and a promising future. She is embarking on a career with Starbucks. Brought up in the land of opportunity, she had everything she ever wanted at her fingertips. Although she had not been in touch with her aunt Dahlia, she had inherited their family home from her and is on the way to Orcas Island, one of the San Juan Islands, to check it out and ready it for sale to pay off her student loans. It had once been the home of her great, great, grandfather, Duncan Campbell who was credited with bringing the maritime industry to Seattle, Washington. Her father owns the Premier Maritime Group, and even though there are many who would gladly change places with her, she is not sure she likes the direction her life is taking.
With decidedly different opportunities, both young women have different expectations and feelings of gratitude. Both are motherless. Mei Lien’s mother died in childbirth; Inara’s died in a car accident after an argument with her, which may or may not have caused her to lose control of the car. While both might be considered, in a sense, the cause of their mother’s death, only one is guilt-ridden. After the accident, Inara had not returned to Orcas Island, where she once lived, but instead moved to Seattle with her father. Both Inara and Mei Lien had devoted fathers who exercised great influence and control over them, but there, their commonality ends. Fortune smiles on one and misfortune on the other. Their different paths, however, will someday converge when they discover their common ancestry. This revelation will create confusion and anger, confession and apology, ignominy and atonement. It may also feel very contrived. Still it works for the story.
In 1896, jobs were scarce and angry mobs, in need of work, roamed the streets of Seattle. They forced the Chinese in the community to leave their homes taking only what they could carry. They forced them to board a ship which was supposed to take them back to China, a place some had never even been, having been born in America. While looking for medical help for her father who had been beaten before boarding the ship, Mei Lien overheard a conversation between the captain and Duncan Campbell, the owner of the ship. He planned to “dump” the Chinese passengers before they reached shore, in a place where they would not risk being washed up and found, so that his ship would not get an “unclean” reputation and be useless in the future. When she related this to her father, he took matters into his own hands, and to save her life her life, he pushed her overboard before they got too far from land, hoping she could swim to safety. Horrified and afraid, she tried to succumb to the pull of the water, but she was rescued by Joseph McElroy, Duncan Campbell’s neighbor, the same Campbell that was responsible for the death of her family and scores of others. The direction of her life changes and as her story begins in earnest, the small triumphs and large travails she experiences never daunt her completely. She simply keeps going forward without complaint.
In the present day, we meet Inara as she is traveling with her sister to her former home on Orcas Island. Her aunt Dahlia had lived there with her partner Nancy, but now that both were deceased, as the current owner, she intended to clean it out and put it up for sale to pay off her school debts. She was surprised by its rundown condition. When Inara discovers a hidden, beautifully embroidered sleeve under a rotted step, she changes the direction of her life. She makes an impetuous decision to turn the estate into a boutique hotel and gourmet restaurant. She then reaches out to Daniel Chin, a professor of Asian Studies at her former alma mater, to assist her in finding out about its history and the meaning of its embroidered message. At this same time, her family was planning the coming dedication of the Duncan Campbell Memorial Park to honor her ancestor and its direction will also change.
As both stories move forward, the reader learns the part of the book that is based on a true story. It is an interesting, but sad, tale about the abuses Chinese residents of America faced in the 1800’s. In the last half of the 19th century, according to the author, job shortages made them easy prey and they were rounded up and chased out of communities forcefully. Although this story about Mei Lien is not true, it is based on real incidents that took place in several cities; but this book’s tragedy never did occur. There was a general fear, by some, that the Chinese were being smuggled into the country, and they were taking away needed jobs by working for lower wages. In some cases, this was true, as “paper sons” entered the country, but it was no excuse for the random acts of brutality and cruelty that were committed. (The politics of the author are revealed here as the reader will surely be reminded of the illegal immigration problems of our present time.) This story tries to illustrate both sides of the history, but it more favorably represents the immigrant’s point of view, describing the mistreatment which gets rather ugly. It is difficult not to support Mei Lien’s character. She never gives up doing the right thing, although her cup seems half empty. Her efforts to survive will be applauded and her sorrow will be shared. This may not be true of the trials and tribulations of Inara, since she cries often with a cup half full and often seems to be an unsympathetic, whiny, even spoiled individual without sufficient reason to be so. However, she too strides forward after struggling with her conflicted emotions.
As the mystery of the embroidered sleeve is solved, the past is revealed as are the many similarities shared by the characters. They both lost their mothers too soon, and later, also lost their fathers. They were both headstrong and independent once they identified their desires and goals. Both had devoted fathers who were determined to do what was best for the daughters, but their ideas were often not in sync with what their daughters wanted. Both found it necessary to keep secrets, secrets which when revealed cleared up many misconceptions, but also brought humiliation and remorse.
Sometimes the tale felt unnaturally manufactured. Things just seemed to fall into place too conveniently, i.e. when Vera, Daniel’s grandmother, recognizes the picture of Kenneth Chin (Yan-Tao McElroy), the child of Mei Lien and Joseph. Also, the siblings joyful reunion at the family home, followed by the suggestion of dinner and a movie seemed an odd suggestion on the day their father died. Perhaps it was the narrator of the audio who made it seem that way with her interpretation and expression, but I felt that overall, interactions wih Inara seemed to have less credibility than Mei Lien’s scenes. Although not as highly educated and very poor, she seemed to have a lot more common sense and ethics than Inara. Mei Lien respected the truth but Inara seemed to disregard it and seemed flighty. She often made inept excuses for her lies. Mei Lien’s story seemed ot have more substance, but that was perhaps because Mei Lien’s story had its foundation in history and Inara’s was pure fiction. At times, I felt the narrator tended to make Mei Lien sound older and worldlier than Inara. Inara’s voice was thin and too girlish sometimes, Mei Lien’s expression showed more courage and fortitude. Inara seemed to be immature while Mei Lien was old beyond her years and had a family and responsibility at age 24 while Inara, at 24, was still not fully formed.
Overall the Chinese were portrayed in a more positive way. They were more honorable than their counterparts, the Caucasian Americans. Although they were on different paths, the ultimate discovery of their shared ancestry will create confession and apology, ignominy and atonement for all of the characters.


About omasvoice

Who am I? I am you. I am everyone out there who loves to read and discuss and voice an opinion!
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