Genre: Historical Fiction
Publishers: Random House
Pub. Date: September 12, 20017
This sweeping historical novel revolves around two World’s Fairs that take place in Seattle, fifty years apart. The narrator goes back and forth in time from his life during the 1909 and the 1959 World’s Fair. We first meet our male protagonist in China at the age of five in the year 1902. He watches his mother burying his infant sister alive (horrible to read). The baby is already near death from starvation. His destitute mother, who is near death herself, has him shipped off to America to save his life. Aboard the ship he and other Chinese children, and some Japanese children, are kept captive in the cargo and treated like animals. However, they manage to remain children even in such horrendous conditions. They played, teased, had a bully and formed bonds with each other. This reminded me of stories about German Jewish children in concentration camps who managed to play together before they were worked to death. On the ship, he meets a beautiful Japanese girl a few years older than himself. During the journey, he survives a body of water known as Dead Man’s Bay. Here the ill children that cannot be sold are put into a sack and thrown overboard (I need to google this to learn if it is true, but I am afraid of what I will find).
In America, he ends up as a charity student in a boarding school in Seattle. Though it’s a lucky break, the boy is very lonely and makes no friends and has no family. (Think young Ebenezer Scrooge being left alone in his boarding school when all the other kids went home for Christmas). But our boy does not grow up to be a bitter man as Scrooge did for the strangest of reasons. As a healthy preteen, he is raffled off in the 1909 Seattle World’s Fair. (Hard to believe that was legal but it was). He is won by a famous Madam in Seattle’s Red Light District. This is not an ordinary brothel. It’s is a high-class establishment, where the grand dame owner is famous for educating and caring for her girls. Instead of living in another horrible place where people treat him terribly, here for the first time, he has a family. He has a job he enjoys, first as a houseboy and later as the house’s chauffeur. His occupation as a man will remain a chauffeur. He is lucky to learn a trade because one day the house will eventually close. This happens when the famous Madam will succumb to an occupational hazard. The sexual disease is never mentioned in the book. Saying without saying that this house would never use such vulgar language, but the writing makes it apparent. In the interim, he discovers the Japanese girl he befriended on the boat to America also works in this establishment. And to his delight, he meets the Madam’s pretty daughter who is his age. The three of them become great pals and our young house boy falls in love with both. Even though the three live in a brothel the author beautifully captures the sweetness of a first kiss.
I should have gobbled up this novel. It has all the elements of good historical fiction. It is interesting as well as educating. The reader will meet crooked police, suffragettes, and learn about the politics of the times. Reading about the brothel was a hoot, but with enough sadness to keep it real. I giggled when the adult chauffeur’s grown daughters were shocked to learn that their ordinary parents have some unordinary and rather scandalous secrets. My issue is that from the time the boy is still a boy until he becomes a young man, he could not choose between the Japanese girl or the Madam’s daughter. The premise of the plot, which is supposed to be inspired by a true story, is a good read. But the love-story triangle (which remained innocent) went on and on, dragging out the pages. I didn’t appreciate trying to guess which girl he would end up with, because the guessing became tiresome. I wanted to jump into the book, grab the young man, and sing to him the Loving Spoonful’s lyrics “You better go home, son, and make up your mind.” However, even with my issues, I have to recommend the novel. It is rich in history and I personally got a kick out of learning that political morals haven’t changed one bit.
Find all my reviews at https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/4793025-martie-nees-record?shelf=read