Tag Archives: immigration

Love and Other Consolation Prizes by Jamie Ford

Jamie Ford incorporated some interesting historical details into his novel, Love and Other Consolation Prizes. Book-ended by the two World’s Fairs held in Seattle, Washington, Ford follows the life of Yung Kuhn Ai at the turn of the twentieth century as his impoverished mother in China sells him to a gentleman who guarantees a better life in America. Yung journeys across the ocean in the bowels of a ship gathered with other children “bought” for distribution on the North American West Coast, including numerous young Asian girls. Ford provides a fascinating glimpse at the careless disregard of ship owners willing to peddle human flesh, but also ready to sacrifice profit by dumping their human cargo into Dead Man’s Bay when the Custom Agents come sniffing around. Yung is caught up in such an act, but miraculously survives, emerging from the near death experience to begin life anew as Ernest Young. Brought up as an orphan and sensitive to his second class status, Ernest, whose absentee father was a missionary, never quite fits in, so when given a choice, he asks to be relocated. His benefactress, Mrs Irvine, uses this query as an means to pawn him off as a prize at the 1906 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, but to her chagrin, instead of being won by a family, the winning ticket is in the hands of Madame Flora, the owner of the Tenderloin Brothel. Despite this questionable new venue, Ernest finds a home amongst the women, finally developing a sense of belonging. Befriended by the downstairs staff, he falls in love with the two girls his age, Maisie and Fawn, with the trio spending time together in childish pursuits (although the call of the upstairs ladies – a gentile bunch despite their occupation – is ever present).

While this concept peaked my interest, especially since much if it paralleled real events, I was disappointed in the execution. The back and forth between 1962 and 1909 distracted me from developing a connection to the characters as the story unfolded. While I am not a prude, I didn’t appreciate denigrating the action of the Suffragettes who were sincere in their efforts to keep husbands sober and faithful to their wives. Mrs. Irvine, a representative of the Washington Women’s Home Society, became a nonsensical caricature whose good hearted attempts of charity were cast as evil (although I must admit that the raffling of Ernest could not be considered a Christian Act of Kindness). Luckily a life of prostitution in the red light district, even one at such a high class establishment as The Tenderloin Brothel with the culturally groomed Gibson Girls, was not overly glamorized. The author ensured that the picture included some warts intermixed with the grandeur of the surroundings. Despite the altruistic tendencies of Madam Flora, ultimately the girl’s bodies were sold for profit, a “profession” which is still at best questionable in polite society (unless you live in a place like Las Vegas or the Netherlands) and at worst a part of the current human trafficking crisis facing not only the world, but specifically the United States – whether the woman is “willing” or not.

While I’m sure that the residents of Seattle appreciated Ford’s use of specific geographical features of their hometown, there was just too much information to keep the interest of the average reader. On the plus side, I did enjoy the description of the Seattle Expos in both 1909 and 1962 (enabling me to make mental comparisons to the 1965 Worlds Fair in New York City – which I attended in my own youth). While I give the author kudos for the obvious research of life at the beginning of the 20th century, there was just too much name dropping, becoming almost preachy, as if the author felt it necessary to present every pertinent fact he discovered about the era. In his old age, Ernest was very active, attending numerous shows and concerts with his “Gracie”, as well as dining at his favorite restaurants. However, unless these activities directly impacted the story, it was simply irrelevant trivia. These miscellaneous features along with repetitive details dragged the story down. As Ernest looked back he described what had happened in his past, specifics which we had just read about in one of the flashbacks. On occasion there were some pertinent tidbits, such as the fact he became a naturalized citizen, but these comments were more an aside rather than a prominent part of the story. The “mystery” involving which girl he married, Maizie or Fahn, was an unnecessary distraction. However, the actual story of Ernest traveling from China to the United States had a lot of potential and so I focused on that aspect of the story. If only the author had edited out the extraneous and expanded on what occurred between 1902 and 1909 to 1912, this might have been a more compelling story.

Three stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende

In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende explores three individuals whose lives inexplicably intersect via a freak winter storm, a sick cat, and a run to the market for diapers. There’s 60 year old Richard Bowmaster who is living in a fog after tragically losing his Brazilian wife and child. His coworker and tenant, 62 year old Lucia Maraz, has survived her own life of upheavals in Chili, escaping the danger by moving to Canada and emigrating to the United States. Finally there’s 23 year old Evelyn Ortega, an undocumented refugee from Guatemala assisting a disabled boy whose father is involved in questionable business practices.

When Evelyn “borrows” her boss’s Lexus for a quick run to the supermarket, she’s caught in the “wrong place at the wrong time” when Richard’s car skids into the rear of the vehicle. Panicking, she ends up at his home, terrified of the consequences when her temporarily out of town employer returns home. Somehow Louisa and Evelyn end up with Richard in his apartment huddling together through the night while a freak blizzard rages across Brooklyn and into the surrounding regions. It’s not just the minor fender bender, but what’s inside the trunk that has them all in a sweat despite the cold.

Thus begins a bizarre road trip to an isolated location far away from the boundaries of the “incident” to get rid of the evidence. Close quarters and fear create the perfect environment for confidences as the three tell their personal stories and develop an unbreakable bond through this illicit deed. Back in Brooklyn is the “rest of the story” providing closure long after the threesome have resolved their accidental dilemma.

I’d like to highlight Lucia’s tale involving the Military coup d’etat in Chili in 1973 where President Salvador Allende was overthrown by armed forces and the national police. It is not a coincidence that the author’s last name is also Allende since this leader was Isabel’s “uncle” which endangered not only her life, but those of loved ones. I’m sure this particular tale invoked some strong emotions from Isabel’s past when she was actively involved in helping those on the “wanted” list find safe passage, which is inherently reflected in the attitudes and behaviors of the characters in this novel.

There was a lot to take in (almost too much to absorb) as the atrocities in Lucia’s and Evelyn’s childhoods are revealed. It is almost impossible to imagine living a life of terror, waiting for someone you love to be killed, or worse, not knowing whether or not the missing are still alive – not to mention your own dangers in an unstable country. Intertwined is the scenarios of those loved ones who influenced the decisions of the trio.

Without maintaining a specific focus on the immigration issue which is currently stalled in Congress, the reader is still left to ponder the attitude of American society towards undocumented workers who have fled their beloved homeland in order to stay safe, as well as the belligerence towards their children who were brought up in this country and know no other home.

While these timely issues make this a must read book (please note the President mentioned the violent M-13 in his 2018 State of the Union Address), I did have difficulty with the choppiness of the story as the plot flipped back and forth between the three main characters revealing their backgrounds piecemeal. I actually cheated and skipped ahead to read each biography in full (one at a time) which gave me a better understanding of their motivations. Oops, sorry Isabel. Allende had the difficult task of condensing their lives into a relatively brief narrative when each of the characters could have easily filled the pages of their own book (including some of the minor players). The conclusion neatly wraps up the details with a bit of poetic justice and a touch of romance thrown into the mix.

Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for proving an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka

What goes on in the minds of the people who surround us, individuals who are there but invisible, going about their daily lives while we are involved in our own personal minutia so that even if we notice their presence they are an afterthought?

That is the case in the novel Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka, a murder mystery which slowly reveals the guilty party via the personal reflections of three troubled souls who are somehow interconnected within the borders of the small town of Broomsville located in Northern Colorado. Fifteen year old Lucinda Hayes has been murdered on the carrousel at the playground of the local elementary school found by the night janitor, Ivan, an immigrant from Mexico with a criminal past. Cameron Whitley, Lucinda’s next door neighbor, has been obsessed with this beautiful teen, spending his evenings as a stone statue watching her movements. Cameron’s thought processes are a little strange as he has difficulty relating to others, becoming “Tangled” when situations are ltoo stressful for him to handle. Detective Russ Fletcher, a colleague of Cameron’s dad (a man who deserted his family several years previously), has vowed to watch over his former partner’s son keeping a promise to someone who ended up on the wrong side of the law. Cameron fears he will one day develop the evil characteristics which sealed his father’s fate, despite his inner sense of love for his long departed dad. Then there’s Jade Dixon-Burns, a girl who exhibits no empathy, not since she was rejected by her childhood friend who decided he’d rather hang out with the alluring Lucinda than remain cohorts with his fat, pimply companion from elementary school days. Through their collective thoughts the details of that fateful February night are slowly revealed with their paths intersecting as the surprising truth – clearly visible the entire time – finds its way to the surface.

Slowly is the key word. The reader must be patient as each trail is examined to see if it is a true path or a dead end. The bizarre contemplations of theseo three characters lead us to false conclusions time and again, yet within these premises are the clues necessary to solve the mystery. While I was curious to see how the author would reveal the perpetrator, I do wish she was a bit more purposeful and a little quicker in wrapping up a story which left a few too many strings dangling at the conclusion.

Three and a half stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears as on Goodreads.