This debut novel is a stunner, historical fiction at its best (captivating, illuminating and provoking) in its depiction and portrayal of the horrors of racism, discrimination, abuse and greed. The inspiration for the novel was happenstance, as recalled by Jenny Zhang, “In 2014, my father returned from a work trip through the northwestern region of the United States with an interesting anecdote: He was driving through Pierce, Idaho, when he saw a marker referencing a “Chinese Hanging.” The marker described the story of how five Chinese men were hanged by vigilantes for the alleged murder of a local white store owner.” Her father wanted to know what had happened way back in 1885. Five years later Zhang began her research and found very little online resources and that the historical marker in Pierce, Idaho “had been frequently vandalized and stolen.” Furthermore, this was not an isolated incident, there had been many violent anti-Chinese acts across the United States during the mid-to-late nineteenth century: Rock Springs Massacre in Rock Springs, Wyoming; the Snake River Massacre in Wallowa County, Oregon, and many others. And there was more formalized racism in The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a United States Federal Law, which prevented all immigration of Chinese laborers. As Zhang thought about this, she wanted to do more than tell the story of the five who were hanged in Pierce, she wanted to tell about, “ ... everything–the laws, tactics and complicity that enabled this event and so many others.”
The novel is told in the first person, but Zhang’s use of this form is complex, beautiful and compelling, very much like Toni Morrison’s in The Bluest Eye, which initially can be a challenge. However, the plot structure and personality of the protagonist, Daiyu, are gripping. The story begins in1882, Zhifu, China, with thirteen-year-old Daiyu, whose name was derived from Lin Daiyu, the tragic heroine and poet, who dies of a broken heart as depicted in the classic Chinese novel, The Dream of the Red Chamber. This young Daiyu does not want a life of tragedy, but that is what happens, as if her naming has destined her to a fate she does not want. Her life changes radically when her parents disappear and she is sent to live in another city where she finds menial work in the studio (for men only) of a master calligrapher, who regards her merely as an irksome street beggar. After her daily chores of sweeping and cleaning end she finds a way to copy what is being taught, and the master takes notice.
On a lovely day she is sent to the produce market and is beguiled by a stranger, who kidnaps her. It is childhood cut short, up close as it happens and as Daiyu is experiencing what is confusing and inexplicable; it is trust betrayed; it is the experience of a child whose judgment did not allow her to have one second of skepticism about trusting and following a stranger. The young girl is drugged and over many months is prepared for a new life, to work in a brothel. After that, she along with others are disguised as boys and smuggled in buckets of coal to be shipped to the United States to work in a brothel in San Francisco.
Daiyu reinvents herself, physically,mentally, emotionally, all the while questioning the motives and character of those who control and take over her life. The master calligrapher may be great at his art, but he lacks humanity and kindness; the stranger who kidnapped her at the market appeared kindly but it was a trick; the madam of the brothel appears to be considerate but it is a ploy to gain control. With the help of a young man, the two of them escape the brothel and run away to Idaho, but they are pursued by a Chinese gang in charge of the brothel. Daiyu once again escapes capture, and lives the rest of her life as a man, but eventually her fate is sealed in Pierce, Idaho, where the inspiration for this story began.
As with Toni Morrison’s novels, this is insightful historical fiction revealing long neglected facts as told through the lives of characters created by virtuoso writers. What was it really like for individuals to live their lives under codified racism? What was it like for women to be regarded as less than, within their own ethnic groups? Based on extensive research, Zhang skillfully and radiantly presents that reality to us, as well as layering certain aspects of Chinese culture. The four treasures are those of the scholar: writing-brush, inkstone, ink and paper. It indicates that the scholar has learned to read and write; to control and master the fine art and technique of grinding an ink-stick on an inkstone, and the ability to do this on all types of paper. It is an art and a meditation.
NOTE: I have revised this review several times and have yet to achieve what I wanted to convey. A brief review brought the novel to my attention. In reading fiction, I often advise others to do the following: Read a book; analyze your own reactions and judgment; then read other opinions. The vexing and intriguing complexity of this novel led to recent book reviews. To date, not one reviewer has written, in full measure, what Ms. Zhang has achieved. That will come in time. As in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, she has created a protagonist, and other characters, who are living in horrendous, unjust, inescapable situations that cause them to take appalling actions. Added to that the author has threaded a deep understanding of Chinese calligraphic arts, (This goes far beyond artistic standards.); referenced an eponymous heroine in a classic Chinese novel; included historical events about Chinese Americans that have been relegated and left to fade away; revealed the graphic horror of a childhood cut short; and created a protagonist who continuously reinvents herself, in order to survive, and also to discover who she really is.
Aside from her artistry as a writer, Ms. Zhang makes us stop and think about codified injustice and racism; how laws initiate, and frequently validate, existing prejudice; and the consequences that affect all of us. It is no small achievement that she has written a book of arresting beauty about horrific events.