Jamie Ford’s heartwarming and heartrending new book chronicles the life of a half-Chinese-half-Caucasian boy, Yung Kun-ai. Also known as Ernest, the young man wends his way through seven decades on two continents: from the Boxer Revolution in China at the turn of the 20th century, through two World Fairs — the first in 1909 when Ernest is a young boy, the second in 1962 when he is a senior.
While the timeline of the book is bounded by 2 world fairs, Ernest’s life is bounded by the women in it — his mother, his infant sister, and two women he falls in love with in America.
Ford pulls no punches in showing Ernest’s beginnings. Set in the brutal reality of starvation, death, and human trafficking during the Boxer Revolution, the book opens as Ernest watches his mother smothering her two day old daughter using the ashes from the previous night’s fire, then laying the tiny body in the grave dug with her bare hands. Once her daughter is buried, she abandons Ernest in a cemetery where she knows that human traffickers will find him and take him.
It’s clear Ernest’s mother came from a well-to-do family: as she leaves him in the graveyard, she gives him a precious gold and jade hair pin, legacy of a life he has never known. We understand that part of her misfortune comes from having been ostracized by her family for bearing the child of a Caucasian man. The reader learns nothing else about his mother’s story other than its brutal end as she staggers off into the night, half starved, leaving her young son and her dead daughter behind her. The gold hair pin comes to represent Ernest’s absent mother throughout the rest of the story, figuring in key moments in Ernest’s life.
In the journey to America, Ernest joins a group of young boys and girls the traffickers collect. His personality is established as he attempts to help take care of the girls on the journey, offering them fresh bath water and rubbing their feet, some of which had been bound in the old Chinese tradition. His compassion for the girls springs from his inability to save his infant sister and mother, a care that earns him the respect of the girls and the scorn of the boys. Ernest ends up sleeping curled up in a nest of the girls during the voyage. The sole Japanese girl in the company of Chinese children, Fahn, snatches the gold hair pin away from Ernest when a boy is raping one of the girls and stabs the boy with it to stop him.
Later in the sea voyage, the ship is found by coast guard and in a panic, the crew sews the boys into burlap sacks and throws them overboard in an attempt to drown them and hide the evidence of their crime. Ernest uses his mother’s gold hair pin to rip the burlap open and escape the fate of the other boys. Of all the boys on the ship, he alone survives; although Ernest’s mother could not save Ernest’s sister or herself, she has managed to save him.
In a truly startling turn of events Ernest ends up in a brothel in Seattle, working as a servant and later a chauffeur where he meets Fahn again who is also working in the brothel as a maid. Ernest is befriended by another girl, the brothel owners daughter who is passed off as her much younger sister, Maisie, and the three end up an unlikely trio, adventuring throughout the city, attending the World Fair together and forming a lasting friendship. At one point, Ernest uses the gold hair pin to carve a heart in one of the trees in the city, putting all three of their initials within.
The author moves the reader back and forth from Ernest’s growing up to his current life as a senior in the 1960s. He’s married to Grace, and early on the reader is tempted to try to solve the mystery of who Ernest ended up marrying. Ernest’s wife is suffering dementia, and he is worried that she will divulge where she worked when she was a young woman to their extended family.
The theme of motherlessness is explored in the three main characters throughout the story from Fahn, whose mother is never seen at all, to Ernest’s mother, who remains nameless, to Maisie’s mother, who is a larger than life character; a glittering madame resplendent in her bawdy lifestyle, running the best bordello with the most sought after prostitutes, nick named “Gibson Girls” for their fashion sense and modest comportment outside the bedroom.
While Fahn and Ernest’s motherlessness happens at the very beginning of the story, Maisie’s unfolds as the story does. War steals Fahn and Ernest’s mothers. Society steals Maisie’s; her mother claims Maisie is her younger sister in order to keep her identity as a youthful woman intact. The grim reality behind the glittering fantasy of life as a prostitute is made clear when Maisie’s mother begins to suffer the symptoms of advanced syphilis. As her mind begins to fade and her moods swing wildly from gregarious entertainer to frightened depressive, her mother’s close friend makes a sweeping decision about the future of the bordello.
New girls are usually introduced in a black tie event mimicking a debutante ball, concluding in the auctioning off of the new girl’s virginity in a semi public spectacle. Amber, who has taken charge when Maisie’s mother is no longer capable of running her business, decides Maisie will be the next girl to debut. She’s hoping this will pay for Maisie’s mother’s medical treatment. Maisie was never meant to be a prostitute and has no desire to be one; her mother intended her to remain out of the bordello’s business, but in her declining cognitive state, she refuses to hear her daughter’s plea not to be auctioned off to the highest bidder and goes along with Amber’s plan.
The announcement of a debut is accompanied by much fanfare and anticipation among the rest of the women working at the bordello. Fahn, who has dreamed of moving up from her life as a maid to the far more glamorous role of prostitute in the brothel, and is furious and hurt when the announcement is made that the next woman to “come out” will not be her, but Maisie. Determined to achieve her goal, she runs away from the brothel to find work as a prostitute in one of the other houses. Amber’s plan simultaneously robs Ernest of both women he has fallen in love with. If losing both women were not bad enough, Ernest, as the chauffeur of the house, is tasked with driving Maisie to the house of the man who has won her in the auction.
The story is more than a heartwarming look at a single man’s journey, though. The author insists that the reader take a look at a society where more than fifty years after the emancipation proclamation, people were still being bought and sold, and the wealthy increased their wealth by participating in what was essentially a slave trade. Women’s place in society is outlined in stark strokes showing that the only way out of poverty for the sex workers in the bordello was to catch the interest of a patron and marry him, and Ernest notes when one of the girls marries a wealth patron that “It was not quite true freedom, but a form of social dependence so elevated and grandiose that it looked like freedom to them.”
The book is definitely worth your time as long as you’re prepared for an unflinching look at how American society in the early 1900s treated immigrants and women.
Cara spent 10 years as a Library Reader’s Advisor in between performing with a belly dance troupe and teaching dance classes. She prefers Swinburne to Shelley, Faulkner to Hemingway, and can be found on most rainy days curled up with a good book and a cup of earl gray, hot.