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The BookBrowse Review

Published September 20, 2017

ISSN: 1930-0018

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The Fortunes
The Fortunes
by Peter Ho Davies

Paperback (12 Sep 2017), 288 pages.
Publisher: Mariner Books
ISBN-13: 9781328745484
BookBrowse:
Critics:
  

From the author of The Welsh Girl comes a groundbreaking, provocative new novel.

Sly, funny, intelligent, and artfully structured, The Fortunes recasts American history through the lives of Chinese Americans and reimagines the multigenerational novel through the fractures of immigrant family experience.

Inhabiting four lives - a railroad baron's valet who unwittingly ignites an explosion in Chinese labor, Hollywood's first Chinese movie star, a hate-crime victim whose death mobilizes Asian Americans, and a biracial writer visiting China for an adoption - this novel captures and capsizes over a century of our history, showing that even as family bonds are denied and broken, a community can survive - as much through love as blood.

Building fact into fiction, spinning fiction around fact, Davies uses each of these stories - three inspired by real historical characters - to examine the process of becoming not only Chinese American, but American.

I: GOLD
Celestial Railroad

Beset by labor shortages, Crocker chanced one morn to remark his houseboy, a slight but perdurable youth named Ah Ling. And it came to him that herein lay his answer.
- American Titan, K. Clifford Stanton

1.

It was like riding in a treasure chest, Ling thought. Or one of the mistress's velvet jewel cases. The glinting brasswork, the twinkling, tinkling chandelier dangling like a teardrop from the inlaid walnut ceiling, the etched glass and flocked wallpaper and pendulous silk. And the jewel at the center of the box?- Charles Crocker, Esquire, Mister Charley, biggest of the Big Four barons of the Central Pacific Railroad, resting on the plump brocaded upholstery, massive as a Buddha, snoring in time to the panting, puffing engine hauling them uphill.

It was more than a year since the end of the war and the shooting of the president - the skinny one, with the whiskery, wizened face of a wise ape?- who had first decreed the overland railroad. His body had been carried home in a palace car much like this, Ling had heard Crocker boast. Ling pictured one long thin box laid inside another, the dead man's tall black hat perched atop it like a funnel. People had lined the tracks, bareheaded even in the rain, it was said, torches held aloft in the night. Like joss sticks, he reflected.

For a moment he fancied Crocker dead, the carriage swagged in black, and himself keeping vigil beside the body, but it was impossible with the snores alternately sighing and stuttering from the prone form. "Locomotion is a soporific to me," Crocker had confessed dryly as they boarded, and sure enough, his eyes had grown heavy before they reached Roseville. By the time the track began to rise at Auburn, the low white haze of the flats giving way to a receding blue, vegetal humidity to mineral chill, his huge head had begun to roll and bob, and he'd presently stretched himself out, as if to stop it crashing to the floor. Yet even asleep Crocker seemed inexorable, his chest surging and settling profoundly as an ocean swell, the watch chain draped across it so weighty it must have an anchor at one end. Carried to the Sierra summit, he looked set to rumble down the lee side into Nevada and Utah, bowling across the plains, sweeping all before him.

Ling knew he should be looking out the window, taking the chance to see the country, to see if the mountains really were gold, but he hadn't been able to take his eyes off the steep slope of his master's girth. My gold mountain, he thought, entertaining a fleeting vision of himself?- tiny?- scaling Crocker's imposing bulk, pickaxe in hand, following the glittering vein of his watch chain toward the snug cave of his vest pocket.

Ling didn't own a watch himself, of course, but shortly after he entered service Crocker had had him outfitted with a new suit from his dry goods store, picking it out himself. The storekeep had been peddling a more modest rig?- "a fustian bargain, as it were!"?- that the big man dismissed out of hand as shoddy. He settled on a brown plaid walking suit instead, waving aside the aproned clerk to yank the coat sharp over Ling's narrow shoulders. "There now!" Crocker declared, beaming at him in the glass. "Every inch a gentleman's valet." He taught Ling how to fasten only the top button of the jacket, leaving the rest undone, to "show the vest to advantage," and advised him he needn't bother with a necktie so long as he buttoned his shirt collar. "Clothes make the man," the circling clerk opined, sucking his teeth. "Even a Chinaman." And then, of course, there must be a hat, a tall derby, which Ling balanced like a crown, eyes upturned. As a finishing touch Crocker had tucked a gold coin, a half eagle, into Ling's vest pocket?- a gift, though the cost of the outfit itself would come out of his wages?- where Ling could swear the thing actually seemed to tick against his ribs like a heartbeat: rich, rich, rich.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies. Copyright © 2016 by Peter Ho Davies. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

In a richly varied book composed of four novellas, Peter Ho Davies illuminates the Chinese-American experience from the 1860s through the present day.

Print Article

Peter Ho Davies is a Welsh-Chinese author of two short story collections and one previous novel, The Welsh Girl. The Fortunes, formed of four subtly linked novellas, considers the lives of Chinese immigrants and future generations of Chinese-Americans – especially the prejudice they experience and the difficulty they have in navigating between two divergent cultures.

In the first section, "Gold," Ah Ling works as a valet to railroad baron Charles Crocker in 1860s San Francisco. His mother was Chinese and his father was white – a "ghost." Raised by his Aunty Bao in Hong Kong, where she ran a brothel cum opium den, Ling left for California as a young man. He intends to mine for gold, but instead works in a Chinese laundry doing ironing. Like many Asians of his time, Ling sometimes meets with racism and outright violence. Though his job for Crocker has him dress in Western style, he feels more foreign the longer he is in California.

Real-life actress Anna May Wong is the subject of the second novella, "Silver." As a girl she made deliveries for her father's laundry in Los Angeles and loved escaping into movie theaters. By 1936 she is a genuine movie star in her own right, having appeared opposite the likes of Douglas Fairbanks, but has never seen her parents' native land. So she arranges to sail to China, a journey that will be filmed. Especially with cameras following her, she remarks how Chinese she feels in America, and how American she feels in China – always out of place and having to overcompensate. This novella has a very different style to the historical pastiche of the first; all in the present tense, it's in short sections with evocative titles like "Riveting" and "Darkness, Invisible."

"Jade" is different still: an almost stream-of-consciousness first-person narrative, it's from the perspective of a friend of Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American beaten to death in 1982 by auto workers in Detroit because he was mistaken as Japanese. "Stereotypes cling if they have a little truth; they sting by the same token," our narrator asserts. He tells of Vincent's funeral, the perpetrators' trial, and his friend's transformation into a sort of racial martyr, all the while wallowing in guilt for running away and leaving Vincent to his fate.

The final novella, "Pearl," brings the previous three stories full-circle through the career of John Smith, a half-Chinese academic who's composing a historical novel about the building of the transcontinental railroad. Other writing projects he has put on hold are about Anna May Wong and the Vincent Chin case – presumably these are the "Silver" and "Jade" texts we've already read. He's in Guangzhou now with his wife Nola, about to adopt a little girl from an orphanage (see 'Beyond the Book'). With his ironically generic name – his father was a white pilot who served in the Korean War – John isn't sure whether China is his "mother country" or completely unfamiliar. Like the other main characters, he "couldn't, still can't, choose China or America, wants both, which may be to say neither."

I appreciated the title's connotations of fate and luck, and the way the sections are based around metaphors of precious materials. However, I wasn't always sure how the novellas were meant to fit together; even though the stylistic variety is welcome, it creates some dissonance: these feel like separate documents rather than parts of a coherent whole. Apart from John Smith's planned books and a few recurring elements like laundries, prostitutes, and elephant-themed keepsakes, there's not a whole lot that connects them. I expected some direct links, whether ancestral or otherwise. Also, "Gold" makes for a pretty slow start and takes up a good forty percent of the book. I knew three more stories were to come, and kept waiting to move on.

All the same, The Fortunes as a whole gives a memorable composite picture of the challenges life has posed for generations of Chinese-Americans. It's like a house of many windows; you may prefer the view from one or two more than the others, but they're all necessary to telling the story of the Asian-American experience.

Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

Huffington Post
Davies’ novel resurfaces several of the darker moments in the history of America’s treatment of Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Americans in vivid terms that make each historical moment alive and rich with nuance.

Entertainment Weekly, "12 must-read novels out this fall"
Davies, a master storyteller, blends fact with fiction in this saga of immigration, acclimation, and Chinese culture, which he tells through the experiences of Chinese-Americans at different points in history.

Library Journal
The absence of a contiguous story line may initially alarm, but patient readers will discover how cleverly Davies interweaves fact and fiction to pull the novel together and show how far Chinese Americans have progressed - and how great the journey ahead is. A thought-provoking literary work for individuals interested in the Asian American experience

Kirkus Reviews
Davies' nuanced contemplation of how America has affected the Chinese (and vice versa) forces the reader to confront what is both singular and similar about all cross-cultural transactions.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. The book's scope is impressive, but what's even more staggering is the utter intimacy and honesty of each character's introspection ... [Davies] has created a brilliant, absorbing masterpiece.

Booklist
Starred Review. Rich rewards await readers searching for superbly illuminating historical fiction; think Geraldine Brooks' Caleb's Crossing (2011) or Hilary Mantel's Cromwell trilogy.

BBC
Davies distills 150 years of Chinese-American history in his timely and eloquent new novel.

Author Blurb Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You
Panoramic in scope yet intimate in detail, The Fortunes might be the most honest, unflinching, cathartically biting novel I've read about the Chinese American experience. It asks the big questions about identity and history that every American needs to ask in the 21st century.

Author Blurb Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, author of Madeleine Is Sleeping and Ms. Hempel Chronicles
Only a writer as gifted as Peter Ho Davies could capture the full weight of a century's history with such an extraordinary lightness of touch ... Buoyant yet profound, unsentimental yet affecting, and above all beautifully written,The Fortunes reimagines in thrilling ways what the multi-generational immigrant novel can be.

Author Blurb Jesmyn Ward, author of Salvage the Bones, Men We Reaped, and Where the Line Bleeds
The Fortunes is wonderfully lucid and sharply imagined. From the very first page, the people in this novel rise from history and we root for them, empathizing with them, as they make their way in the early American West and beyond.

Print Article

Adoption From China

In The Fortunes, one of the main characters is adopting a baby from China. The U.S. Department of State reports that a total of 76,026 children were brought from China to the USA through adoption between 1999 and 2015. Of these, 87.1% were female and 12.9% male – a result of China's historical one-child policy and the frequent abandonment of girls at orphanages. Although China is still among the most popular for inter-country adoption into the United States, the frequency of adoption from another country has declined significantly from its peak in 2004.

Adoption from China International adoptions are controlled by the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption – the Hague Adoption Convention for short. Married couples or single women hoping to adopt from China must first be pre-approved by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, part of the Department of Homeland Security. They also have to meet China's specific eligibility requirements for prospective parents:

  • aged between 30 and 50
  • married two years or longer, with no more than two divorces in the past
  • at least one member of the couple employed, with a salary of at least $10,000 for each household member
  • total assets of $80,000 or more
  • fewer than five children under 18
  • at least one member of the couple must come to China in person to complete the paperwork

Disqualification can be based on the criminal background or poor health of the prospective adopters. For instance, mental illness, AIDS, blindness, deafness, life-threatening disease, severe obesity, and history of domestic violence or substance abuse are all disqualifying factors.

According to the terms of the Hague Adoption Convention, China must attempt to place children within its borders before making them available for international adoption. This means that, increasingly, those Chinese children offered for international adoption are likely to have special needs. The waiting list to adopt a healthy child from China can be as long as five or six years. On the other hand, Waiting Children programs, for kids who are waiting to be adopted, seek to place special needs and older orphans – in China children can only be adopted up to the age of 13.

Prospective parents have to go through an adoption service provider, such as an agency or attorney, that has been accredited by both the USA and China. The China Center for Children's Welfare and Adoption provides a list of their licensed agencies. Submitting an application for adoption takes four to six months, and the time between approval and the chance to travel to China to complete the adoption is two to three months. The total costs of an international adoption can be in the range of $20,000 to $25,000.

Picture from AdoptAbroad

By Rebecca Foster

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