There There by Tommy Orange

Writing: 5 Plot: 3 Characters; 4.5

This is a story of the Urban Indian. Set in Oakland, it follows twelve characters as they make their way to the Big Oakland Powwow. Each chapter is told from the perspective of one of the characters, leading to short, rapid-fire, entries at the violent end. The author experiments with different point of view techniques, utilizing first-person, third-person limited, and even second-person narration for specific characters. The structure comprises a set of interconnected stories, mostly current but some in the past, that lead up to the powwow. These are sandwiched between an introduction and an “interlude” which serve as essays on what it means to be an Indian today and how to answer the stereotype criticisms such as “Why can’t you just get over it?”

The writing is strong and the author does an excellent job of taking on a variety of personas across age, gender, and the degree of self-identification with “Indian-hood.” Each character possesses and expresses a rich interior world combating any lazy assumption about people in any particular group being “all alike.”

While I’m glad I read this book, I did find it depressing and disturbing. Like many of the Native American books I’ve read, it is difficult to find any thread of hope. Most of the characters are caught up in drugs, poverty, alcoholism, babies born to addicted mothers, single or absent parents, foster care, etc. Even the characters who manage to avoid the worst, end up caring for family members who did not. It felt like the main aspect of Indian culture that was passed down was a sense of inherited oppression and anger, which while justified, does not help anyone move forward. I prefer novels that focus on some kind of positive path rather than dwelling exclusively on the misery of the past and present without any suggestions of hope. One character — a substance abuse counselor who herself is only 11 days sober — says that it is hard to sell “Life is OK” when it isn’t. But why not focus on what is possible for each person to do to make life OK? To be fair, several of the characters really were trying, but the overall message was one that said their chances of success were slim to none.

Paper Wife by Laila Ibrahim

Thanks to NetGalley and Lake Union Publishing for an advance reader copy in exchange for my honest opinion. Book to be released on Oct. 30, 2018.
Writing: 3/5 Characters: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5

A gripping, and ultimately uplifting, tale highlighting a piece of American immigrant history. The date is 1923 and Mei Ling is an 18-year old girl in Guangdong Province whose family fortune has suffered “the triple devastation of war, famine, and disease.” With little warning, she finds herself a “paper wife” — married to a stranger (and mother to a two-year old named Bo) under the false name of his recently deceased wife in order to enter America. Her true identity is buried under a second layer — her elder sister was the intended bride, but a last minute illness forced the substitution. Mei Ling must keep this quiet as her husband is expecting a timid Rabbit wife and is instead receiving a fierce Dragon.

The story follows Mei Ling through her wedding, the trip in steerage to San Francisco, her new family, including a six-year old orphan named Siew whom she meets on the boat, and immigration through Angel Island. Beautiful and detailed descriptions of San Francisco and Oakland Chinatowns, the people she meets, the lives they lead, and the way different people try to succeed in the new country. I love that each of the characters (even the unpleasant ones) has real depth — the author did not resort to stereotypes in this fictionalized account of a Chinese immigrant experience. The story takes some surprising turns as Mei Ling the Dragon takes steps to maintain harmony and protect her family.

As a way of setting the context, the book’s epigraph comprises a single disturbing quote from then President Rutherford B. Hayes: “I am satisfied the present Chinese labor invasion (it is not in any proper sense immigration — women and children do not come) is pernicious and should be discouraged. Our experience in dealing with the weaker races — the negroes and the Indians, for example — is not encouraging.” Ugh.