Peilin (Polly ) Gua grew up in a small, traditional village in China. She was a headstrong girl who didn't want the traditional life of being a doting, submissive wife. When she gets pregnant, Peilin doesn't want to marry the father of the child because she knows that is where she will end up. Instead she makes her way to the United States illegally. She and her son Deming end up living in a small apartment in the Bronx with Leon, another illegal Chinese immigrant, his sister Vivian, and her son Michael. The boys are like brothers and enjoy each other's company very much. The adults all work very hard, with long hours, just to be able to eat and to pay the rent. One day Polly doesn't return from her job at a nail salon and never calls. No one knows where she has gone. Did she abandon her son? Or did something happen to her? As illegal immigrants, Leon and Vivian have few resources to help them locate Polly without putting themselves in jeopardy of alerting authorities.
With Polly gone, the heart of the little "family" falters and Leon returns to China. Vivian is left with the two boys she can't afford to care for. Deming is therefore given over to social services to arrange for an adoption to a white family---two professors who live in upstate New York. They change his name to Daniel Wilkensen and expect him to integrate into their society. He is the only Asian at his school and for this he is constantly teased and bullied. "In the city he had been just another kid. He had not known how exhausting it was to be conspicuous." Deming's cultural displacement becomes the central theme of the novel. He can't ever seem to figure out who he is. He tells himself that he is now Daniel but internally he clings to Deming.
The novel is divided into four parts. The first part focuses on Deming and his point of view. The second part takes the point-of-view of Polly and it is here that we learn about how she got to America and find out what happened to her that fateful day she doesn't return from work to her son and their living arrangement.
Parts three and four focus on Deming's attempts at finding his mother and reuniting with his pseudo-brother, Michael. Until he is able to integrate all parts of his life, he can't settle and move forward.
There is a lot to dissect in Ko's novel. Though the book is not actually critical of the Wilkensen's who adopted Deming, they certainly didn't help him by pointing out in a condescending way how they had saved him and what opportunities he had now that he didn't have before. Cultural insensitivity doesn't have to be overt. Polly was never satisfied with her lot in life but found that poverty and ignorance were extreme barriers to overcome. Marginalized people like Vivian and Leon, who want to do the right thing, often are left with no options and are forced to make bad decisions.
The Leavers won the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Book Award for socially engaged literature. One of the judges for the award had this to say about their choice,
Gish Jen, writing a review of the novel for the New York Times, is not so complimentary. She feels that the story didn't mine the depths of motivations and nuance. Often she felt that information was dumped on the reader in long swatches of dialogue. Remember the old adage for good writing?--- Show me, don't tell me. Jen felt like she was told not shown. But she does acknowledge that the novel is a good launching point for discussions on immigration, culture, and family. Jen sums up her review, "Lisa Ko has taken the headlines and reminded us that beyond them lie messy, brave, extraordinary, ordinary lives" (NYT).
The Leavers was a book club selection. Oddly most of the gals in the group were rather neutral on the book, neither hating or loving it. Our discussion centered around two themes- leaving and parental blessings. The first theme, leaving, was obvious since the title gave us the clue, but we were able to explore the many ways that people left and the impact it had on everyone. The second, parental blessings, is a theme I've long noticed in literature and in life. If a child does not receive or perceive that they have been blessed by their parent they cannot move forward healthfully and will always try to find something to fill in the gap left by that lack of blessing. Deming was prime example number one. His mother abandoned him. He went through the rest of his teen years adrift without the mooring that her blessing would have provided in his life. It gave us a lot to chew on, which makes for a good book club discussion.
Past Due Book Reviews