Sunday, December 6, 2009

Book Review: Throwaway Daughter

I just finished reading a young adult novel, Throwaway Daughter by Ting-Xing Ye. The protagonist, Grace Dong-mei Parker, was adopted from China by a caucasian Canadian family in 1980. An orphanage worker gave the family a note left with the child that said her name was "Dong-mei" and the mother's name was "Chun-mei." As a child, Grace rejects all things Chinese because she believes she was unwanted by her birth family -- the "throwaway daughter" of the title. She hates eating at Chinese restaurants, doesn't want to learn Chinese, resents her adoptive mother calling her by her Chinese name. But when at age 9 she unexpectedly sees the Tiananmen Square massacre on TV, her interest in her Chinese heritage is awakened. She asks her father if he thinks Chun-mei is safe after seeing the violent images from Beijing -- "It was the first time I had said the name Chun-mei without anger."

At age 20, Grace travels to China for schooling, uncertain whether she'll seek her birth family. Ulitmately she does search with the help of the same orphanage worker who had given her parents the note from Chun-mei, and finds that her birth mother abandoned her to keep her husband and father-in-law from killing the baby. A year after leaving her at the orphanage her birth mother returned for her but was told she had never been at the orphanage. Chun-mei has a nervous breakdown and her husband divorces her in order to marry another woman in the quest for a son. As a final twist of irony, after all the family did to secure a male heir he decides to marry the daughter of a rich family and move in with her parents in another village instead of following the traditional path of the male heir who brings his wife into his family.

After finding her birth mother, Grace learns that she was not casually thrown away as she had imagined in childhood. The last line of the book comes as Grace is flying home to Canada, and reads, "I have met one hero in my life. Her name is Chun-mei, and she is my mother."

One of the reviewers at complains that the book isn't "educational about the complex issue of adoption." I disagree. The opening paragraph of the book suggests that many complex issues in adoption will be addressed, and the book doesn't disappoint:

No one seemed to understand what it was like to have no real birthday. Even Blackie, our Shih-Tzu, had one, noted on the form given to me when Mom put my name down as his adoptive "parent" when I was five years old. Never mind how that affected my understanding of the word adoption.
The book does a good job of addressing Grace's ambivalent feelings toward her birth mother, her anger and resentment at being Chinese when she wants to be just like her adoptive family, and her growing longing for roots. In one childhood scene related by her adoptive mother, the family is talking about her sister Megan's biology assignment and genetics, and Grace reacts:

"All Megan has to do is look at you to see how she'll turn out," Dong-mei said quietly. "I got my genes from two people I've never met."

Keven caught on right away. "Yes, dear, but --"

"I'm going to be ugly, then. Only ugly people would abandon their own baby."
The book also touches on Grace's racial identity struggles -- but it really is only a touch. She says, "I was sixteen when I learned I was a "person of colour.' . . . In Milford you could count on two hands the families of colour. Growing up a Parker, I had never thought of myself as ethnic, part of a visible minority, a hyphenated Canadian. I knew but I didn't realize, if that makes any sense." She doesn't want to be a person of colour like the Asian immigrant children she knows, but she was also envious of them and their clear belonging in their families. "I was neither and nothing. A yellow face in a white family where freckles were the norm. . . . You can't be two people at the same time -- not without ending up in a mental institution." Her struggles seem to be more related to abandonment/adoption than to racial identity, though.

Admittedly, some of the characters are fairly one-dimensional, but Grace's initial resentments, growing understanding, and ultimate acceptance, seem very realistic. I've read of quite similar journeys from many adult adoptees.

The story is told from multiple viewpoints -- there are chapters in Grace's voice, in her adoptive mother's voice, in her birth grandfather and father's voices, and in her birth mother's voice. I liked that approach, though the father's and grandfather's perspectives were a bit predictable. Still, some complexity is lent to their characters by the explanation for why the father is so insistent in needing a male heir -- though he was the youngest child, he survived the great famine while two of his older sisters did not. He realizes that he was fed more than they so that as the only boy he could pass on the family name. If he does not produce a male heir, his sisters' deaths would be in vain.

Jane, Grace's adoptive mother, was naturally a character who interested me as an adoptive mother. Unlike many adoptive mothers, she is very open and accepting of Grace's birth family and birth culture. She's the one who calls Grace by her Chinese name and insists that she learn Chinese. She's the one who insisted that Grace know about her birth mother. But when Grace says she wants to go to China, "it struck me like a punch in the stomach." She chides herself --

Oh, wasn't I the open-minded one! Insisting that Dong-mei stay connected to her roots, even calling myself 'Mama Number Two,' until doing so upset her so much I backed off. Taking her to Chinatown, pushing her to take Chinese lessons. Wasn't I the great liberal, unselfish and tolerant! Easy to do when the possibility of her ever wanting to find her birth mother was so remote, never mind actually tracking Chun-mei down. Now I feel like a hypocrite and a fool.

Despite these feelings, she doesn't do anything to deter Grace from taking the trip to China or from searching for her birth mother. Still, it would have been nice to see a less stereotypical reaction from an adoptive mother when her child wants to search for birth family.

Of course, the book isn't perfect. The time period seems about a decade off; though there were a smattering of international adoptions from China as early as the eighties, there weren't really a significant number until 1992. Still, the decade change allows the author to draw on her lived experiences in China, which she left in 1987. One might also complain that Grace's success in finding her birth family is unrealistic -- but we're hearing of more and more people successfully finding birth family in China, so that aspect of the book will seem more and more realistic as time goes on, I suspect. The book only tells one story about the reason children are abandoned in China -- the one child policy and the social preference for boys. It doesn't cover the gamut of reasons -- poverty, disability, out-of-wedlock birth, etc. -- but then, it makes little pretense that it is recounting all the reasons. The book tells a dramatic and moving story of girl children abandoned because they are girls.

The real strength of the book lies in the writing, which is quite exceptional, especially for a young adult novel. I read another young adult novel about China adoption and an adoptee's search for her birth parents, The Great Call of China, and that book really pales in comparison to Throwaway Daughter. I would definitely recommend this book for young adult/adult reading. Though Amazon lists the reading age range at 9-12, I don't think there are many 9-year-olds who could handle the emotional content. Age 14-15 would probably be more appropriate. I plan to hold onto this book for my girls.


LisaLew said...

I'd be interested to know more about the author's background, it sure sounds like she is very current on adoption themes. I think I'll google her...

LisaLew said...

Wow - she was actually in a prison farm. Her parents died when she was small, but it looks like her great-aunt cared for her.

I got this from Wikipedia:

Ting-Xing Ye (born 1952) is a Chinese- Canadian author of young adult novels, as well as Leaf In A Bitter Wind, a best-selling autobiographical account of her life in Maoist China.

Ye was born in Shanghai, China, in 1952, the fourth of five children. Her parents were a factory owner and his wife. Ye's parents died when she was a small child, leaving Ye and her four siblings in the care of her Great-Aunt. During the Cultural Revolution, Ye and her family were condemned as having "bad blood" and persecuted by the Communist regime, because their father had been a boss in a factory. At sixteen, like millions of other young Chinese men and women, Ye was exiled to a prison farm to "learn from the peasants" and be "reformed" by hard labor. On the farm, Ye was persecuted and suffered torture at the hands of her leaders.

Ye spent six years laboring on the prison farm, before being admitted to Beijing University. She took a degree in English Literature, then began a seven year career as English interpreter for the national government in Shanghai. During that time she met her future husband, Canadian writer and educator William E. Bell who taught English at the Foreign Affairs College in Beijing. Ye came to Canada in 1987. She published her autobiography, detailing her life in Mao's China, in 1997. She published her first picture book in 1998. Ye also writes Young Adult fiction and non-fiction.