by Jean Kwok
First sentence: “A sheet of melting ice lay over the concrete.”
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I’m not sure I’m supposed to sum up an immigrant girl’s horrific-and-yet transcendent American experience in one word, especially nice, but there it is.
I found this book to be… nice.
It’s beautifully written, true. And it tells an untold story: of what can happen to immigrants (legal in this case) when they come to America. It’s the story of the American dream: how a girl’s ambition, and how one thing — in her case, being smart and having a “talent” for school — can change the fortunes of just about anyone, especially with hard work and a few lucky breaks. There’s also a love story, tragic and bittersweet.
We follow Kimberly Chang as she and her mother arrive in New York, fresh from Hong Kong, hoping for a better life. They’re under the patronage (thumb?) of the mother’s older sister, Patricia, who sets them up with a job — being finishers at a clothing factory, being paid by the skirt — and an apartment — in an abandoned building with roaches, no heating, and half the windows gone. It’s a rough adjustment for Kim, although she has some grasp of English, she is not prepared for school in Brooklyn. Her grade fall, she skips school, and it’s really only through the chance grace of a friendly gesture that gets her to go and stay. Which, in the end, is what saves her.
There’s some lovely writing in the book, and small touches here and there — like they way Kwok wrote what Kim heard as opposed to what the real word was, when she was just learning (“Where’s your accent note?”) — that I found to be charming. It covers a lot of time, eight years, as Kimberly goes through middle school and high school. There are lots of downs, understandably, but there are ups as well.
But, in the end, I felt that it was going for depth, for heartache, for the chance to move the reader and all I felt was that it was tragic, and yet how nice that she was able to overcome it all. How nice that it all mostly worked out. How nice that she was brilliant and had opportunities. How… nice.
There are worse things, though. At least it was nice.