The Fortunes

Peter Ho Davies's The Fortunes begins with Ling (manservant to one of the owners of the transcontinental railroad), born in China but sold into indentured servitude in the United States. He inadvertently instigates the railroad's hiring of Chinese workers in the mid-19th century, and is present when they strike for the same pay as their white counterparts.

Davies then turns to Anna May Wong, the earliest Chinese American movie star. Her story shows the crippling sexism, ignorance and, of course, racism that pervaded Hollywood. Unlike Ling, who becomes a symbol for his countrymen inadvertently, Anna May fights for the spotlight. The Fortunes takes its discussion of symbol one step further with the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin by two autoworkers who blamed the Japanese for the auto industry's problems, and the organizing among Asian Americans that came in its wake.

These various threads of history come together in the final part, where John Smith, a mixed-race academic who bears more than a few similarities to Davies, travels with his wife to China to adopt a baby. In a sense, everything becomes reversed: a man born of Chinese migration comes back to the source of that migration in order to continue it. The irony is not lost on Smith, who is aware of Ling, Anna May and Vincent. Indeed, he plans to write a book about them.

The brilliance of The Fortunes is not that it expertly dissects Chinese American-ness--or American-ness, for that matter. Davies has conjured a book that forces its readers to find the pressures they face in their own lives, to see how the struggle of self-identity and one's place in the world is alive in each and every one of us. --Noah Cruickshank, marketing manager, Open Books, Chicago, Ill.

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