I recently read Peter Ho Davies newish novel, The Fortunes (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016) and cannot get it out of my mind. It’s one of those books that will stay with you for a long, long time. I think the most astonishing thing is that Ho Davies, who was born and raised in the UK, totally gets US History. I mean, in ways that even Americans don’t.
In US schools, we learn nothing of what Ho Davies writes about in his four-part novel, starting with the influx of Chinese railroad workers in mid-1800s America. This section is a little on the long side, but it’s chilling and shows how Chinese women suffered terribly in the US. The US government didn’t allow many Chinese women to enter the country, so those that were let in were invariably sold into prostitution.
The second part takes up from where the first leaves off, but in the first half of the 20th century. It centers around a narrative of the Hollywood actress Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American movie star. Peter Ho Davies is so sympathetic to the dilemma Anna May Wong found herself in, caught between a traditional cultural that didn’t accept her work in Hollywood and the majority class in the US that still viewed her as an outsider. That happens with all pioneers and Ho Davies illustrates this perfectly. The Anna May Wong part was my favorite.
Next he takes us to 1980s Detroit, during the height of the tensions between the Japanese and US automobile industries. The story is told through the voice of Vincent Chin’s childhood friend. Chin was a Chinese American man who was beaten to death after getting into a bar-room scuffle with two white men who took out their frustrations on Chin only because he was Asian.
And the last part takes place in China. It centers around a couple that traveled there to adopt a baby. The husband is half Chinese, like the author. This section dives into 21st century identity issues. Each of the other sections is based on historical characters, so the reader is left to wonder if the last section could be partly autobiographical.
I haven’t read other books by Peter Ho Davies, but now I’m hooked. If you’re interested in identity, race, or untold parts of US history, you will learn a lot from this book. The friend that recommended it told said that she also thought the first part dragged a bit. So if you start it, please continue reading. You won’t be disappointed.