Beautiful Country, by Qian Julie Wang*****

“Secrets. They have so much power, don’t they?”

Qian Julie Wang is born in China to a professional couple living under the shadow of governmental disfavor. Her father’s elder brother has written critically about Mao Zedong, naively signing his own name to the article, and as a result, the entire family lives under a cloud and the threat of violence, courtesy of Chinese Stalinism. When her father finds a way to relocate himself and his family to New York, it is under a tourist visa, and so they cannot legally remain in the USA, or get any sort of legitimate employment. Wang’s memoir tells of the deprivation and terror, combined with occasional lifesaving windfalls and ingenuity, of growing up as an “illegal,” and of how, against all odds, she ultimately finds success and citizenship.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the invitation to read and review, along with my apologies for being inexcusably late.

Wang comes to the USA, which in Chinese translates to “Beautiful Country,” as a small child. From the moment her feet touch American soil, her parents drill the story into her: “I was born here. I’ve lived here all my life.” Because they are in the US illegally, they must find work to do under the table, and so they are exploited by the most malevolent sweatshop owners. At first, Wang is also employed, toddling off to do piecework with her mother, but eventually she is enrolled in school, where she proves to be highly capable once she overcomes the barriers of language and culture.

More than anything, her life and that of her parents is dominated by fear and secrecy. Opportunities that would otherwise be helpful must often be bypassed because of the documentation required. Her parents’ emotional stability, their marriage, and her mother’s health are broken.

If this story seems unbearably grim—and I confess, this is why I delayed reading it, moving other, pleasanter stories to the top of my queue—it is ultimately a story of resilience and of triumph. Wang is a gifted writer, and she breaks up the horror by recounting small victories and pleasures that punctuate her youth. But the most important aspect of how the memoir is presented, is that everything is told through the lens of childhood, and so we see everything as a seven-year-old Chinese girl, a nine-year-old, etc. would see it.

Because I had fallen behind, I checked out the audio version of this memoir from Seattle Bibliocommons, and Wang does her own narration, which is my favorite way to hear a book, because there’s no danger that the reader will add emphasis or interpretation that conflicts with the author’s intentions. The climax arrived as I was wrapping Christmas gifts, which made me all the more aware of my level of privilege.

Wang tells us:

“Most of all, I put these stories to paper for this country’s forgotten children, past and present, who grow up cloaked in fear, desolation, and the belief that their very existence is wrong, their very being illegal. I have been unfathomably lucky. But I dream of a day when being recognized as human requires no luck—when it is right, not a privilege. And I dream of a day when each and every one of us will have no reason to fear stepping out of the shadows.”

Highly recommended.

The Great Alone, by Kristin Hannah****

ThegreataloneI wanted to see what all of the buzz was about, and now I know. Kristin Hannah has a fresh, authentic  voice that transports her readers to a completely different time and place. The Great Alone, set in Alaska in 1974, made a believer of me. Thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the ARC, which I received in exchange for this honest review.

Leni Allbright is our protagonist, and she and her mother are inseparable during the early years of her childhood. But when her father, a man she doesn’t know, is released from the POW camp and then sent home, he is volatile, not the man Cora remembers. He has trouble keeping a job; he wakes up screaming in the middle of the night. He’s paranoid and sometimes delusional, too.

He likes firearms.

Then word comes that a friend, a soldier he served with, has died and left him a plot of land in Alaska. They’ll be away from the stimulation of the city, which seems to trigger Ernt’s anxiety and panic attacks. Cora tells Leni it’s perfect, because once Ernt is happy, everybody can be happy. And so, clueless hippies that they are, they head north in a VW van with little more than the shirts on their backs and of course, Ernt’s weapon collection.

Imagine their surprise upon discovering their new home is at the end of a long unpaved driveway and isn’t really in habitable condition. However, Mad Earl, the father of the deceased soldier that left the place to Ernt, introduces him around, and their new Alaskan friends teach them the ropes. Cora and Leni are accustomed to a passive role, but Ginny “the generator” and Large Marge assure them that if they don’t learn to pull their own weight, they will die before the end of the first winter. Soon Cora and Leni know how to fell trees, use tools, and kill their own meat.

Ernt wants his wife and daughter to be survivors; he wants them to be ready when “the shit hits the fan.”  He wakes them from a sound sleep at odd intervals and forces them, bleary eyed and bewildered, to assemble and load weapons in the dark. He assures them that it’s possible the enemy may attack in the small hours; it’s an old ruse. But over time it becomes clear that the most dangerous person they will ever encounter is Ernt.

Hannah is a feminist badass and an evocative, memorable writer. One of the finest things about this story is the recognition that domestic abuse often arrives hand-in-glove with some other challenge that muddies the water. Ernt is abusive, but he can’t help himself; something happened to his mind when he was a POW. Then of course, there’s addiction and straight-up mental illness. Who could just leave a guy that has been through so much and that loves them so hard?

Ernt says he is sorry, and it won’t happen again. Like so many abusers, he says it every damn time. But even when it has become crystal clear to Leni that she and her mother must put their own safety first, Cora won’t leave, and Leni won’t leave her mother.

By the halfway point, it becomes clear that someone is going to die; the three of them cannot continue together indefinitely through the dark Alaskan winters, and yet there they are, and he’s getting worse, not better. But then Large Marge injects new life into their domestic situation with an ingenious plan. It doesn’t last forever, but it buys them some time.

My only disappointment is with the ending. In many ways it is cleverly turned, but it’s a letdown to see such a magnificent young woman warrior take such a well-worn, traditional path. It’s a small quibble though, and it shouldn’t keep you from grabbing the nearest copy of this excellent novel at whatever price you have to pay to get it. It’s for sale now, and I recommend it to you.