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Excerpt from King of the Armadillos by Wendy Chin-Tanner, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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King of the Armadillos

by Wendy Chin-Tanner

King of the Armadillos by Wendy Chin-Tanner X
King of the Armadillos by Wendy Chin-Tanner
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2023, 336 pages

    Sep 17, 2024, 336 pages


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Victor shot Ruth a worried look. That wasn't what the doctors had said.

"That's not going to happen," she snapped at Henry before catching Victor's eye. "You're going to be cured. The doctors said some people get well in just a few months. If you go to Carville, they'll fix you right up and you'll be home before you know it." She tossed the pamphlet on the pile of papers Ba was still holding and, turning back to Henry, she enunciated every word: "Do not scare your brother like that."

Henry's chest puffed up like a rooster's, but before he could speak, Ba jumped in. "If people find out about that place, he will never get a job, never get married, even if they let him come home. And we will have problems, too."

By reflex, Victor's fingers grasped the rough cotton sheet covering his legs and immediately let go from the sting. Henry made it sound like his future depended on keeping his illness a secret. Was leprosy really so horrible that it would ruin his life whether or not he got well? And what would it do to his family?

"Come on, Sam," Ruth scoffed. "It's 1954, not 1354."

"You don't understand. Customers would stop coming to the laundry. We could lose everything."

Ruth shook her head. "I think you're making too much of this."

"Then why are they shipping him off to a leper colony?" Henry interrupted.

"Wait a second," Victor began, but no one was listening to him.

"It's a residential facility," Ruth corrected Henry. "An institution for Hansen's disease. The best in the country."

"Who cares what they call it?" said Henry. "None of this would have happened if it weren't for you."

"Excuse me?" Ruth's voice went loud and high as beads of sweat popped out all along her hairline. Her eyes darted over to Ba and widened.

"Henry," said Ba, but Henry was on a roll.

"You wouldn't let Victor see our own doctor. You took him to some jerk who just sent him to the hospital. And now the government wants to lock him up someplace we've never heard of. It's a thousand miles away, in the South, where they hate us even more than they do here. You say it's so great, but how do you know?" Henry cocked his head to the side.

"Listen," she said, "this isn't a cough or a sprained ankle. Chinese herbs can't cure leprosy. And Dr. Wu doesn't even have a medical license. Believe me, I checked."

"This isn't your family," Henry barked. Tiny specks of spit flew through the air. "Why don't you mind your own business?"

The color drained from Ruth's face, her bloodred lipstick making it look extra pale. She brought her hand to her throat as if to protect herself, but she didn't seem to know how to respond. None of them did. Henry's feelings about Ruth were no secret, but Victor had never heard him talk to her like this.

A car honked, followed by the whooshing sound of traffic, and Victor, who hadn't been able to get a word in edgewise, was fed up. None of this would've been happening if it weren't for him, but nobody would admit it.

"Doesn't anyone care what I think?" Victor said, his skin hot and tight on his face. They all turned to him now, looking down at him in the bed.

"You're just a kid," said Henry.

"I'm almost sixteen. And it's my life."

"Of course we care," said Ruth.

"You shouldn't even be here," Henry snapped. "You're not our mother."

"Enough," said Ba, silencing Henry. He turned to Victor. "What do you want to do?"

Ba had never asked him that question before. All he'd ever done was give him orders and expect him to obey. Victor was eight when Ba had taken him and Henry from China, leaving Ma and Grandmother behind, and it hadn't exactly been easy for him to settle in. Now that New York finally felt like home, he was about to get uprooted again, and this time, he wouldn't have any family with him. At Carville, he would be alone.

Victor tried to imagine what it would be like in the Bronx if he couldn't go to school or make deliveries for the laundry, and could only go back and forth to the clinic on Staten Island. He pictured himself watching other people living their lives through the windows of subways and buses while he, the family secret, would be kept in hiding. If he stayed, Ba would have to find a way to pay his medical bills and figure out how to get him to his appointments. Plus, the family's business and reputation would be in danger. The problem wasn't just that he was sick with something hard to treat like cancer or even something contagious like polio or TB. People would have felt sorry for him if he had any of those things, but once they knew he had leprosy, even Henry and Ba seemed to flinch whenever they saw him. The very idea of it disgusted people so much that it made Victor feel like he was disgusting, too. In a way, the shame of that was worse than what the disease was doing to his body, especially since he'd become such a burden.

Excerpted from King of the Armadillos by Wendy Chin-Tanner. Copyright © 2023 by Wendy Chin-Tanner. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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