There are many reasons why this book received so many accolades, the foremost, I believe, is because it is about current political issues. It attempts to present the plight of the immigrant, emphasis not on immigrant, or illegal immigrant, but rather on undocumented workers. I believe that the author was actually sympathetic to the “undocumented worker ignoring the illegal status. If you are progressive in your beliefs, and you believe in open borders, this book is for you. If not, it may be very disturbing for other reasons. Each of the characters seemed to blame others for their missteps. Each ignored the fact that their troubles, although real and devastating, were caused by their own choices, choices to disobey the laws of the United States. Each seemed to believe that he/she had the right to break the law.
Gou Peilin was a willful and stubborn young teenager from Fuzhou, China. She did as she pleased, defying rules and regulations. Girls were not permitted to do many of the things that boys were, and she bristled and did them anyway. She rarely thought of the consequences of her actions. She went to Beijing to work in a factory and took up with her former boyfriend, Haifeng. She was unworldly and naïve. When she found herself pregnant, she decided she did not want to tell him, although he truly wanted to marry her. Desperate for freedom and a different life, she tried to abort the baby and never informed him that she was pregnant. In China, however, she encountered a bureaucracy she could not navigate, and so she could not end her pregnancy in a timely fashion.
In desperation, she borrowed money from loan sharks and obtained false papers, bought passage to America and began what she hoped would be a new life. Her debts were enormous, in the end, upwards of $50,000 that had to be repaid. Still, she was exhilarated when she arrived in America, and she gave little thought to motherhood or her future. She was painfully naïve and unaware of the fact that at seven months along, she could not abort the child, even in the United States where abortions were more accessible. She was soon to be a working, single mother, and her life was about to become even more difficult.
Her situation grew dire as she struggled to work and raise her son in New York City. However, one day, she met Leon and they fell in love. She moved in with him, to his apartment in the Bronx, and he cared for her and her son, Deming, now a toddler. Leon’s sister Vivian had been abandoned, and she also lived there with her son Michael. Peilin, worked as a nail technician, but as time passed, now known as Polly, Peilin had dreams of a better life. Leon, however, was not legal either, and he was content to stay where he was. He would not abandon his sister, and she also refused to move.
When ICE raided the nail salon where Polly worked, she was rounded up and sent to a place called Ardsleyville, in Texas. It was a detention camp, based on the Willacy (County), detention camp in Texas. She was quickly lost in a system that was overwhelmed with illegals. No one could find her or help her. The telephone there did not work. When she was permitted one call, she did not accurately recall any phone number, so she could not reach out for help. For more than a year, she lived in terrible conditions, even solitary confinement. Although her own actions had caused her plight, she was angry with everyone else, and the horrific conditions she was forced to endure, changed her forever.
Deming, her son, was lost to her when he was adopted by a white couple, both academics, and brought up as an American, losing much of his Chinese heritage. His name was changed from Deming Guo to Daniel Wilkinson. His new parents, Kay and Peter, had their own ideas about what his future should be, but it did not match his own ideas, which, if truth be told, were all over the place. Still, his birth mom encouraged his music, and they discouraged it. His mom allowed him more freedom and they made more rules. Soon, he felt he did not fit in anywhere, not in the white world or the Chinese world, not in the United States or in China. He seemed destined to failure, as he, like his birth mother, made one foolish choice after another. Although his parents wanted a more traditional life for him, with a college degree and a stable future, he chose to drink too much, became addicted to gambling and had dreams of being a famous guitarist. He was talented, but seemed to always set himself up for failure by never adequately preparing for the task before him.
The fact that he was adopted into a different racial family seemed to weigh heavily upon him, and he didnot feel comfortable in most situations. He was also adopted as a boy of 12, so although grateful for his life and his new family, which was far different from the life of poverty he lived with his mother, both lifestyles offered different advantages to him, which he struggled to understand and appreciate.
As the decades passed, the reader was given a window into the world of the undocumented immigrant/illegal alien’s struggles in the United States. However, as they rail against the injustices that they must endure, they seem to fail to recognize their own complicity in the shaping of the situation.
I did not find myself liking the characters or their behavior. I found them self-serving and irresponsible. They made a choice to enter a country illegally and were upset when they were arrested for doing so. They contrived all sorts of ways to try and become legal, with false papers, through marriage, etc., once in the states, but often were unsuccessful. The illegality of their behavior seemed inconsequential. They came for the opportunity America offered, although in China they did not suffer terribly from deprivation. The problem was that there were few opportunities to leave the peasant class, in China, and that seemed to be the driving force behind Peilan’s often erratic behavior and dreams. She wanted to succeed, to get ahead, to accomplish something more.
I thought the book was too long. The timeline was often confusing, and the subject matter jumped from topic to topic, sometimes without fully exploring and developing the one before beginning another. When the book ended, I was surprised, since there were still many loose ends that were not tied up. Did Deming, now Daniel, ever find or meet his real biological father? Did his biological father, Haifeng, ever discover that Deming was his son? What happened to Yong, Polly’s husband, after she went to Hong Kong? Would she ever get to America to see Deming again? Which life did Daniel wind up identifying with, his Chinese or his American? Was the author for or against interracial adoption, for or against illegal immigration? Did Deming/Daniel or Peilin/Polly ever find out what they truly wanted, who they really wanted to be? Did they find what they were searching for? Did Daniel feel out of place because he was adopted into a white family? Could that white family truly understand what he needed as a young Chinese boy? Children who were adopted as infants seemed to fare better in the story. Was that a fact? Although the characters seem to take great risks, they seemed ignorant of the rules and completely naïve about the chances they were taking.
The struggles Deming felt about his parents and his responsibility toward each was troubling for him. To whom did he owe the most allegiance? Who was his true mother? Was it the mother who wanted him desperately and chose a grown boy to raise, or the mother who had never wanted to be a mother in the first place, who had been unable to find him and who stopped searching for him, eventually pretending he no longer existed?
The immigrant plight seemed to be conflated by the author with the illegal immigrant plight, and the issues were not clearly defined or developed. The characters were surprised when their foolish decisions had unpleasant consequences. It was as if they decided they could make their own rules and the laws of the country were immaterial. Should the laws of a country be defied or ignored? None of the questions I raised were ever answered.
In the end, there was one conclusion that stood out for me. Somewhere, someone in the book said, Americans were not all white. The converse is that in China, the Chinese are all Chinese. The book may actually have pointed out an interesting idea that is often not discussed. It is hard to assimilate; it is hard to overcome the stares and the inherent bias and confusion of people who see things they do not understand. We tend to oversimplify our problems in America with a one-size fits all solution.