Archive for the ‘immigrants’ Tag

More Than a Uniform   Leave a comment

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If you suspect The Women in Black is about nuns, you’re wrong. No worries, although the title would work for such a subject. Instead, these are saleswomen at Goode’s Department Store in Sydney, Australia, who wear black frocks.

Madeline St. John follows four, including Lisa a teenage temporary employee, who work in Ladies Cocktail and Model Gowns. Patty is in a childless, unhappy marriage; Fay is single and weary of the dating scene; Magda is a sophisticated Slovenian emigrant.

The writing is sparse, yet captivating. Each main character is vividly portrayed, as is Goode’s. With the holidays rapidly approaching, the store prepares for an onslaught of last minute shoppers.

Young Lisa has finished school and awaits the results of her final exams. She’s intelligent with dreams of being a poet and going to university – something her father adamantly opposes. Magda, who interacts little with Patty or Fay, takes Lisa under her wing.

When not at the store, St. John provides glimpses of each character’s home life. Only Magda is truly happy, which may be attributed to her appreciation and acknowledgment of what life in Australia offers her compared to what she left behind in her home country.

On the heels of the Christmas rush is the popular annual sale. Preparations for it, plans for how the women will spend New Year’s Eve and wondering about the results of Lisa’s exams, contribute to the anticipation the author creates. The result makes this a rapid-page-turner of a novel.

The Women in Black

Four Bookmarks

Scribner 1993

209 pages

Racism Has No Boundaries   Leave a comment

Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha

Sandwiched between race riots in 1991 and 2019 is the story of two families, one Korean and one African American, connected through violence. Loosely based on the shooting of Latasha Harlins, author Steph Cha has crafted an important, engaging novel illustrating the prevalence of racism in the form of a who-dun-it in Your House Will Pay.

In 1991 teenager Ava Matthews is shot and killed in a neighborhood convenience store in South Central Los Angeles by the owner Jung-ja Han. Ava had gone with her younger brother, Shawn, to buy milk. Although Jun-ja Han is convicted, she served no jail time.

Fast forward to 2019, Korean immigrant Yvonne Park is shot outside the pharmacy where she works with her husband and daughter, Grace. In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I’ll only say the shooting attracts Shawn’s attention.

Shawn’s cousin Ray has just been released from prison. Shawn, has a decent job and is a father-figure to Ray’s teenage children. The family no longer lives in South Central, but gang activity is never far away.

Cha primarily focuses on Grace Park, a twenty-something living with her parents. Although she’s in touch with her older sister, Miriam is estranged from the family. Grace is the more naïve of the two, while Miriam has a wider life view.

Suspects for Yvonne’s shooting are sought, including Shawn, who has an alibi, and Ray, who doesn’t. It’s impossible for Shawn not to reflect on his sister’s murder and the lack of justice in her death.

Your House Will Pay
Four Bookmarks
Harper Collins, 2019
304 pages

Hope and Lies   Leave a comment

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Lies, lies and more lies are at the heart of Miracle Creek by Angie Kim. This courtroom thriller is rich with possible culprits responsible for two deaths: a mother and an autistic child.

The novel’s first line is only a hint of what’s to come: “My husband asked me to lie.” Young Yoo, referring to her spouse’s request quickly acknowledges that it wasn’t a big lie. Yet as the author deftly illustrates, a series of falsehoods no matter the size, can lead to unexpected consequences.

The narrative begins with an explanation of what’s referred to as “The Incident.” Korean immigrants Young and Pak Yoo run an experimental medical treatment facility: the Miracle Submarine, named for its shape and proximity to Miracle Creek. This pressurized oxygen chamber is used for therapy by two autistic children, a wheelchair-bound teenager all accompanied by theirs mothers and a physician seeking a cure for infertility. A fire erupts leaving two dead thanks to an unknown arsonist.

Jump ahead to the courtroom where  the surviving mother is on trial charged with murder, hers was the child killed. Each chapter is told in the voice of those involved: the Yoos, their daughter and the adults in the submarine at the time of fire. The evidence points to the mother, and her indifferent attitude makes it easy to believe she is guilty.

Yet, many lies slowly surface with suspicion clouding every character. Ultimately, readers are left asking themselves how far they would go to protect their loved ones.

Miracle Creek
Four-and-half Bookmarks
Sarah Crichton Books, 2019
351 pages

Refugees, love and peace   Leave a comment

Exit West

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid is part parable and entirely too timely.

Hamid’s story follows Nadia and Saeed who meet in an unnamed war-torn country. She is distanced from her family because of her strong desire for personal independence. He lives with his devoutly religious parents. The two fall in love as the world around them crumbles.

Through a series of doors, which conjure images of Alice in Wonderland or Platform 9 ¾ in Harry Potter’s world, the couple escape from one refugee situation to another. The settings include the Greek island of Mykonos, London and Marin, California. They are different and in many ways similar to one another. Of course, the common factor is the large number seeking refuge from countries all over the world.

Although, the narrative is important because the question of immigrants/refugees/asylum seekers is something facing most Western countries, it is also heavy-handed. There is no doubt this is a serious issue with no easy steps toward resolution. Ultimately, the story is less about Saeed and Nadia. They’re simply the vehicle making the journey but the matter of what to do with the influx serves as the passenger.

Hamid’s writing is stark, yet evocative. There is a sense of fear and relief from one passage to the next. There’s a feeling of hope, initially for Saeed and Nadia, but eventually for something larger. Yet, something in the telling of the story falls short. Perhaps, because it’s somewhat fantastical, but mainly because the characters never truly come to life.

Exit West
3 Bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2019
231 pages

The American Frontier   Leave a comment

 

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Years ago I gave myself permission to stop reading books that couldn’t hold my interest. Nonetheless, I still struggle with the idea that once I start something I should finish it. As I slogged my way through Amy Bloom’s Away, I wondered when I’d set it down for good. I never did.

Bloom’s slow-paced story is about the determination of a mother’s love and the sacrifices she endures. It’s also a narrative about immigrants and fitting into not just new environments but adjusting to different customs and expectations.

Lillian Leyb is a seamstress living in New York City’s lower east end in 1924. As she becomes romantically entangled with her employer and his son, her past is slowly revealed. She left Russia where her husband and, presumably, her child were killed. Lillian becomes a kept woman until she learns from her cousin, a recent arrival from the homeland, that her daughter is still alive. Thus begins Lillian’s journey across the  United States including the expansive Alaskan frontier en route to Siberia to find her daughter.

Lillian experiences both the kindness and cruelty of strangers; she’s befriended and betrayed. Bloom incorporates humor and pathos in Lillian’s trek by explaining what’s in store for those Lillian encounters – from her east end companions to those in a Seattle brothel and later a women’s prison in Alaska. Through it all, Lillian remains determined to find her daughter.

Although Away was no page-turner for me, I’m glad I stuck with it. It just took time.

Away
Three Bookmarks
Random House, 2008
240 pages

Unknown but Not Invisible   2 comments

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The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez is a timely read with the issue of immigration never far beneath the political surface. Yet, the novel isn’t about politics, but people.

Arturo and Alma leave Mexico for Delaware because they want to do more for their teen-aged daughter, Maribel, who suffered a brain injury. They believe she’ll benefit in a better school. They’re not illegals; they have work visas. Each chapter is told from one of the character’s perspectives, some in greater detail than others; only never Maribel’s.

Woven in with the challenges of living in a new land with a new language is the relationship that develops between Maribel and Mayor.

Sixteen-year-old Mayor Toro lives in Maribel’s apartment building; his parents left Panama when he was less than a year old, but he’s never fit in.  From Mayor’s perspective, Henriquez writes: “The truth was that I didn’t know which I was. I wasn’t allowed to claim the thing I felt and I didn’t feel the thing I was supposed to claim (Panamanian).”

This sums up the experience of those introduced in the book. Henriquez has created a montage of immigrants: from Mexico, Panama, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, even Venezuela and Paraguay. These places are all part of the Americas, which is what makes the title so appropriate with its double entendre. In brief, compelling chapters, among those told in Alma and Mayor’s voices, the neighbors share their pasts explaining why they left their native countries for the U.S.A.

The Book of Unknown Americans
Four Bookmarks
Alfred A, Knopf, 2014
286 pages

Tending a Family Tree   Leave a comment

A Good American is not only an engaging tale about immigrants, it’s also a captivating
account of the power of family and community. Alex George’s novel begins as a love story,
which ultimately becomes a chronicle spanning four generations. George starts with the un-
likely courtship of Frederick Meisenheimer and Jette Furst in Hanover, Germany. The uncon-
ventional Frederick woos Jette, a robust independent woman, by singing Puccini from behind
a privet wall; thus setting a precedent for the importance of music in the Meisenheimer house-
hold. The pair soon relocates to Beatrice, Missouri.

Narrated by James, Frederick and Jette’s grandson, the novel is an absorbing examination
of domestic life. The story is abundant with an eccentric cast of supporting characters, rang-
ing from a giant to a midget. And, as James notes, “While we were growing up, so was America.”

Rural America is the perfect backdrop for the Meisenheimer portrait. This is not a glowing
portrayal because the members have their share of faults. Yet these only to serve to make
everyone more believable. As with any family, dysfunction does exist in the bloodline. Its
manifestation simply, and oddly, makes everyone even more endearing. The beauty, and
strength, of the novel is that it is filled with not just one good American, but many. It may
be easy to overlook the concept of America as a melting pot today, but George’s narrative,
even while acknowledging the negative elements lurking in the shadows, reflects the best
ingredients that make this country what it is.

A Good American

Five Bookmarks
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2012
387 pages