Immigration in the books of Laurence Yep

Looking for an immigration story? Try Laurence Yep. More recently known for the charming A Dragon’s Guide to the Care and Feeding of Humans, co-written with his wife, Joanne Ryder, Laurence Yep is also famed for his many middle grade novels. The Tiger’s Apprentice series, for instance, an engaging fantasy with characters from Chinese mythology (the tiger of the title is an actual tiger, btw). And also historical and contemporary fiction starring Chinese and Chinese-American characters.

Dragon's Gate by Laurence Yep

Dragon’s Gate was the first of Yep’s Golden Mountain Chronicles (the third chronologically), and vividly depicts the protagonist’s immigration experience. When Otter accidentally kills a man, his mother sends him to join his father in America. Life on the Golden Mountain is not the idyll Otter had imagined; discrimination is blatant and work conditions are brutal. The scenes of Otter’s sea passage and his hours toiling underground are memorable in their detail. Apart from the historical detail, the great triumph of this novel is the perspective, which is so complete that the reader accepts Otter’s norms unthinkingly; the Irish-American characters seem as strange and foreign to the reader as they do to the protagonist. An excellent series with complex characters, which portrays through the experiences of the different focal characters the factors which pushed as well as pulled Chinese workers to the Golden Mountain.

Also historical fiction featuring a Chinese-American family, this time the immigration is trans-continental instead of international. Set in the 1920s, Joan’s family moves from Ohio to West Virginia. Family dynamics! Friends! Misunderstandings! Kindly neighbours and horribly prejudiced neighbours. The amount of work these pioneers put in is staggering. Yep does not shy away from pointing out the immense discrimination thrown at Chinese-Americans, nor from the damage done by miscommunication, despite the best of intentions. Main strengths of these two books are the depiction of a (mostly) close-knit and loving family and the incorporation of traditional Chinese stories.

Ribbons by Laurence Yep

The immigrant experience in Ribbons is not that of the protagonist, Robin, an aspiring ballerina, but of her grandmother. The main plot revolves around familial tensions and lack of money – Robin has to give up ballet. The Cook’s Daughter, a second story featuring Robin as protagonist, has an important secondary character with a very different immigration experience. The Amah, which focuses on Robin’s friend Amy, contrasts wealthy and poorer families, and Angelfish, which returns to Robin, foregrounds the discrimination against and difficulties of being half-white and half-Chinese. Um. So I’ve made these stories sound gloom and doom. They’re not. (There is unhappiness, of course – what story doesn’t have unhappiness?) There is a wealth of atmosphere, or atmospheres, as the protagonists navigate multiple worlds in the big city.

The case of the goblin pearls by Laurence Yep

The first of three Chinatown Mysteries. You’ll just have to find out for yourself where immigration comes in, lest I spoil things. An adventurous protagonist with an outrageous aunt.

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