In 1902, Ernest Yung, about five years old, was abandoned by his mother in a cemetery in China. After watching his mother smother and bury his baby sister, he was told that an uncle would come and collect him and take him to a better life in America. His Chinese mother and his white missionary father had not been married. He was of mixed blood and was an outcast. His father had been murdered by those who did not accept them or want the likes of them in China. In actuality, those who were biracial were not welcome in America either. Because of a terrible drought, they were starving; the growing numbers of the bodies of those murdered were washing up daily in the nets of the fishermen. Alone and unable to care for her children, his mother saw no other way out. She gave him her only precious possession, a tarnished metal hairpin which was topped by a jade bird that symbolized peace and harmony.
Ernest Yung was taken with other forsaken or unwanted children to a ship owned by a man who kept them hidden in its bowels. They had been sold in order to save their own lives or those of the others in their family. Their parents had little notion of what would become of them but thought anything was better than the fate that awaited them all in China. Some believed that they had little choice but to sell their children in order to save the others in the family. What the children who were secretly transported in the underbelly of the ship, its cargo hold, experienced, was dreadful. The conditions were appalling and some were abused, not only by the crew but also by the other children who were bullies. Still, most often, whatever happened to Ernest, he was grateful to have a full belly and so withstood all of the hardships that came his way. He seemed older than his five or six years and was lucky to survive the voyage which took him to Seattle, Washington where he became, “young Ernest” to some, and Ernest Young to the world.
After almost drowning at the journey’s end, he was rescued and placed in a children’s home but was eventually removed from there by his patron, Mrs. Irvine, a member of a group called the Mothers of Virtue. She placed him in a private school and undertook his care. When he angered her, in 1909, by asking if he could transfer to a school that might be more welcoming to him, this pious, pompous woman offered him up as a raffle prize at the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition. She deemed him ungrateful, however, she was horrified by the woman who won the raffle and so tried to convince him to run away or return to her care.
For Ernest, the worst day of his life was the day he left his mother and the best was the day that Dame Florence Nettleton won him and took him to live in The Tenderloin where she was Madame Flora, the owner of a high class house of ill repute. He had a job as a houseboy and a lifestyle with friends and “family” around him. He no longer felt he was alone or an outcast. Although, on several occasions, Mrs. Irvine tried to convince him to leave the house of decadence, he refused to leave the Tenderloin where he was finally happy.
While there, he became reacquainted with Fahn who had actually been on the ship with him and now worked as a maid in Madame’s house. As a little child, when they were both in the bottom of the ship that took them to America, he had promised to marry her. He and Fahn became fast friends once again, and together with Maisie, also called the Mayflower, they were a happy threesome. Maisie was the Madame’s “little sister”, Margaret.
The novel is bookended between two world’s fairs, the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition in 1909 and the Century 21 Exposition in 1962. Both were held in Seattle. Both framed Ernest Young’s life, and it is through his memories that the four plus decades between the fairs, is revealed as a story about love and devotion in a world ruled by puritanical morality and racial prejudice. It is about poverty, sexual decadence, sexually transmitted disease and its devastating effects, child trafficking, the degradation of women, and the gross injustice and discrimination that existed. It is about the lack of civil rights for women and children and the hypocrisy of a society where the idea of “do as I say and not as I do” governed the behavior of those who were rich, famous and powerful.
The way in which Ernest faced his challenges illustrated his deeply loyal and remarkable character. How he lived his life and survived all of the obstacles put in his way were a testimony to his devotion to those he cared for and the courage that he showed when he had to protect them. Because he was so easily pleased by simple things and asked for so little for himself, it was hard not to admire him. In the forty intervening years between the World’s Fairs, Ernest and the woman he still loved, Gracie, had two children, Hanny and Juju. Eventually, they had a life of contentment in America. Perhaps it was secretly a bit unconventional, but from the outside, it was quite ordinary. They were happy, although the book was at times terribly sad.
The book is based on a past reality. A boy named Ernest was really raffled off at the AYP, although there is little known about what happened to him in the future, since he was not claimed. As a novel, I found it a bit disjointed, overlong, and a bit contrived, but as a love story, it was beautiful in its constancy.