Few issues are more topical than that of undocumented immigrants and their children.
PEN/Bellwether Prize-winning author Lisa Ko addresses this issue in her debut novel, “The Leavers.” Ko grounds her book in the emotions and complexities of family instead of politics.
Chinese immigrant Polly Guo leaves one morning for her low-paying job at a nail salon. Her young son, Deming, is not concerned when she doesn’t come home that evening. Weeks go by and Polly does not return to the small Bronx apartment she shares with her son and three other people; unbeknownst to them, she has been swept up in a raid by immigration authorities and imprisoned.
Deming is placed in foster care and eventually is adopted by a white couple in upstate New York who change his name to Daniel. He adapts to his new surroundings but never forgets the mother who abandoned him and whose absence shapes his life as much as her presence might have. Daniel’s old life collides with his new one when his childhood friend, Michael, gets in touch with information about what happened to Polly.
Readers responded positively to Ko’s compelling story and were delighted to chat with the most current FYI Book Club author via Skype.
“After reading this book, I have a new awareness of how alone a person feels in a community where they don’t know the culture at all,” said Jane Campbell of Independence.
Denise Fletcher of Kansas City agreed. “We can’t understand how immigrants are feeling in these situations; we don’t have that experience. The book shows us what life is like for these people.”
Readers sympathized with Daniel and his slow assimilation to suburban life after his mother’s disappearance. But they enjoyed talking about Polly far more, especially trying to determine whether she was a selfish or sacrificing mother.
“I couldn’t comprehend what Polly did, abandoning Daniel under the park bench when he was a baby. I don’t think a mother could do that,” Doris McCartney of Independence said.
Other readers understood how the stress of working and supporting an infant could drive Polly to a lapse of reason. “She did come back,” Howard Wilkens of Kansas City pointed out. “She didn’t totally abandon him; she did the right thing eventually.”
Debbie Gamm of Kansas City was angrier at Leon, Polly’s boyfriend, and Vivian, his sister, than at Polly. “They had chances to tell Daniel about his mother and what happened to her and they didn’t. As for Polly, I hoped she had that extra bit of strength and drive to survive.”
Wilkens asked the author about Polly. “She’s very goal-oriented and less motherly than other women in the book. Did you intend to write it that way?”
Ko laughed and said, “I’m not sure. It’s all a matter of intent and understanding of what the character would do under certain circumstances. Polly’s character was inspired by a story in The New York Times. I’ve always enjoyed reading about complicated characters and the way we write about women who crave a sense of adventure.”
This led to a discussion of Peter and Kay, Daniel’s adoptive parents. Gamm said she felt for Daniel’s adoptive parents. “As caring, good people as they were, they really didn’t have a clue.”
Campbell found one major fault with them: The adoptive parents “should NOT have changed Daniel’s name.”
“This story is atypical of lots of adoptees,” Ko reminded the readers. “Daniel doesn’t know who is he is; he’s awkward and acting out. He feels the pressures of his parents and that he can’t live up their expectations.”
After Ko signed off, readers purposefully dug into the meaning of the book’s title.
Diana Ash of Independence started listing who were the leavers and how they left. “Polly left China and Daniel. Daniel leaves China as a baby and his family as an adult. Leon leaves America. Angel, Daniel’s friend, leaves him.”
“The only person who doesn’t leave Daniel is his childhood friend, Michael, Vivian’s son. Actually, Michael works the hardest to stay,” Gamm noted.
Readers left the discussion agreeing the characters were stronger for the unexpected exits they inflicted on one another and a better understanding of what it means to be left behind.
Kaite Mediatore Stover is the Kansas City Public Library’s director of reader’s services.
Join the club
The Kansas City Star and the Kansas City Public Library present a book-of-the-moment selection every few weeks and invite the community to read along. To participate in a book discussion led by the library’s Kaite Stover, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Look in FYI on Sept. 2 for the introduction to the next selection, “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, this fall’s Kansas City Big Read.