Tag Archives: book review

American Born Chinese; review

American Born Chinese; by Gene Luen Yang

Review by Mark Anderson

Yang, Gene L. American Born Chinese. 01st ed. N.p.: New York and London, 2006. Print.

American Born Chinese is a uniquely written illustrated novel. It has three parallel stories: central is the story of Jin Wang the son of Chinese immigrants that has an identity crises and internal conflicts with peer pressure to conform. Second is an allegory of the Monkey King. And third is a story of Danny who has a very strange cousin from China who visits annually. These three stories converge in the final chapter to resolve as Jin matures. The Monkey King allegory teaches the principle upon which true self-acceptance is based and which Jin must learn. The story of Danny shows an alternative life in which Jin gets to be transformed into what he desires, but it cost him his soul, as foretold by the herbalist’s wife. The novel is well crafted and deserves careful thoughtful reading.

The central story of Jin and the peer pressure in school shows that he is stereotyped and oppressed by the Anglo culture. Then the story of cousin Chin Kee uses hyperbolic stereotype to the point that it is kind of repulsive. The issue of racial stereo typing is confronted, but confronted in a sort of backhanded method. At this point we wonder if the author is confronting or encouraging racist stereotyping. We may question if this book is valid for a young audience because they may not understand the sarcastic irony. The key to understanding the author’s intention is the way the Anglo oppressors are portrayed. Their indulgence in racism is portrayed as negative. The teacher who introduces Jin as a new student is portrayed as grossly ignorant. A student comments that his mother has told him that Chinese eat dogs. As Jin is being bullied at lunch the boys say “Let’s leave bucktooth alone so he can enjoy Lassie” (33). Since the author does cast a negative light on stereotyping then we confidently interpret him as being anti-racist, and encourage young readership.

This story can be classified as a didactic-allegory which is the traditional purpose of allegory. It is a classic approach because it teaches in way that we do not realize we’ve been taught until it’s upon us. To varying degrees the struggle for self-identity is universal. As I read this as an adult I still have my own challenges with being secure in my identity. If I had read this and understood it as a teen it may have really helped my growth. The values presented in this book are based upon self-acceptance that is granted to all people by an authority that is greater than the false authority imposed by peer pressure.

The author uses allusion to Biblical literature and symbolism which give it a profound depth. In the second section of the Monkey King story (pg 68 – 71) a wise old sage with a shepherd’s crook appears and asks the Monkey King why he is so angry. The Monkey King resents being called a monkey but the sage claims that he is actually his creator. This infuriates the Monkey King even more and a struggle begins. Several allusions to Psalm 139 of the Bible are made with a quotation that makes an important point, “It was I who formed your inmost being, I who knit you together in the womb of that rock. I made you with awe and wonder, for wonderful are all my works.” (80). Yang teaches us the Biblical principle of self-acceptance that is based upon being accepted by the ultimate authority – our Creator. Psalm 139, especially the first 18 verses, has comforted many people who feel out of place or like a social misfit, or people who are objects of discrimination and oppression from other humans. It has taught many people that there is deep serenity in finding our place as creatures before our Creator.

My best friend in high school was second generation American of Japanese heritage. At that time I didn’t understand the depth of his difficulties in being secure in his identity among the peer pressure of American culture. I wish this book was available for my friend during his teen years. This book can help us all understand the oppressive nature of racism and help those oppressed claim the dignity that is rightfully theirs as bestowed by their Creator.

Copyright; Mark Anderson 2014

Works Cited

Yang, Gene L. American Born Chinese. 01st ed. N.p.: New York and London, 2006. Print.

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book review: Holes; Curses and Hope

Holes; by Louis Sachar

Curses and Hope

Sachar, Louis. Holes. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998. Print.

            This story is about Stanley Yelnats (Yelnats is Stanley in reverse) and his family curse. Stanley is spending time at a youth rehabilitation camp where he and his newly acquired comrades come to terms with a very harsh life but also find incredible sweetness in life when curses are broken. Stanley claims to be innocent of his crime and was just in the wrong place at the wrong time because of an old curse on his family, “It was all because of his no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather!” (7). He explains this as the family joke, “he had a great-great-grandfather who had stolen a pig from a one-legged Gypsy, and she put a curse on him and all his descendants” (8). This story is more deeply about a universal curse upon all of humanity, viewing all of humanity as wasting away, vainly digging holes; “When you spend your whole life living in a hole, the only way you can go is up” (160). But the story is also about hope.

            Some of us might personally identify with the characters of this story as; young and in need of maturity, social misfits, and with a background of family curses. This becomes most obvious in the story of Stanley’s friend Zero. The Gypsy’s name was Madam Zeroni, coincidentally the family name of Zero. The name Zero implies someone who has been discarded by society as worthless, “No one cares about Hector Zeroni” (144). We are told the story of his childhood and desperate plight of his mother and how he eventually is abandoned and becomes homeless. This is Zero’s curse but all of the characters have their own version of a curse.

            There is a strong sub-theme of showing racism as evil, or as a curse upon society. Stanley’s companions at camp are not initially identified by their race. They are first described by their character, which is really profound considering our culture’s inclination to describe people first by the category of color. In chapters 25 and 26 we are told the story of the white school teacher Katherine Barlow (who later becomes outlaw Kate Barlow) and her love affair with the black man Sam who sells onions. When a town person sees the two kiss she curses them, “She pointed a quivering finger in their direction and whispered, ‘God will punish you!’” (111). After Sam is killed and Kate turns outlaw the narrator says, “All that happened one hundred and ten years ago. Since then, not one drop of rain has fallen on Green Lake. You make the decision: Whom did God punish?” (115). The issue of racism is significant and is related to the larger theme of curse and blessing.

            The story is a skillfully woven triplet of stories: an old tale of Stanley’s ancestor, the “no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-granfather,” who brings a curse on his heirs, a story of a more recent great grandfather who gets robbed by outlaw Kissing Kate Barlow, and Stanley’s story. Sachar’s artistic use of symbolism and allegory make this a fascinating book. I interpret the older story of the original curse as an allusion to the Biblical story of Adam’s sin and the curse brought on humanity, “cursed is the ground for your sake” (Genesis 3). However Stanley and his friends may have acquired their problems, the problems are portrayed as a curse or affliction. In all three stories there is reference to a mystical river that flows against gravity, “the water runs uphill” (30,110). The symbolism of a supernatural river cannot be ignored. I view this as the author’s intentional reference to something spiritual, a reference to the life of God provided for humanity. The Bible uses this symbolism as a theme from beginning to end; rivers that flows out of Eden (Genesis), a river that flows out of a temple (Ezekiel), the river that flows from Jesus (John). I see a very strong allusion to the Biblical drama of mankind’s desperate situation and hope offered to mankind through the work of Jesus to break the power of the old curse and offer life.

            If my interpretation proves too subjective then the story still carries a very valuable message for readers. As Stanley is searching for the water they reach a point of despair, “Big Thumb was his only hope. If there was no water, no refuge, then they’d have nothing, not even hope.” (167). The message of hope is desperately needed and is incredibly healing for young people-all people! This book has a special gift for young people; it shows that being judged by society’s values or being discarded by society is not the end of the story. It shows that curses can be broken.

            I talk to young people weekly, who are incarcerated in our city’s detention center. These teens have family histories that are beyond belief to many people. I have talked to teens whose fathers were killed in gang violence. This week I talked to five teen boys. One said his parents do care about him and he will be glad to go home. Another said his parents are both in jail. One said his parents don’t want him back. Two others were very distant from their families and don’t have any connection with their father. Both of these will go into programs, vaguely similar to Camp Green Lake. The boys were all familiar with Holes. We had a great talk about the concept of having a cursed life and the hope that we can have a new life free from our past. The message of hope is incredibly valuable and Sachar has presented this message beautifully.