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May 10, 2010

Midnight at the Dragon Café

Judy Fong Bates - ISBN - 9781582431895

Not so long ago I discovered the American Library Association's award winning list. I generally loathe the organization because it supports, encourages and defends unkempt, "dirty" old men who frequent public libraries to stink them up as they enjoy pornography on common computers visible to young people. "They have that right!" . . . . We're told that, but I forget just why.

Nevertheless, the list included a number of books with which I am familiar, and consider to be worthy, so I ordered half a dozen of their newer award winners. Finding them equally good I ordered the whole list for the past 10 years, and have found the vast majority of them to be outstanding. Even the ones I have not relished are considered by many to be great. One which I did not much like was Tinker, but it was just awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. (So much for my opinion !) And then there's No Country for Old Men, which I quit reading after 50 pages--all I ever give any book before reshelving it. Not my "cup of tea."

Which gets me to "midnight;" a provocative title and an incredibly good book, released in 2005 by the author of China Dog (which I have not read). Unfortunately she's published nothing more.

The book is set in the 60's, and features an immigrant Chinese family in a small town satellite of Toronto. Their business is the restaurant, and as is true in many small towns they are the only Chinese . . . isolated from the rest of the community, considered strange and often ridiculed. While their restaurant affords them a modest living they work all of the time and live above the business in a dismal and largely unfinished apartment. In simple, declarative sentences, quite beautifully crafted, Bates describes the challenges for a young girl, the daughter, adapting to her new home.

Bates is a writer whose work is just there: all the parts mesh like a fine machine. An immigrant herself, she describes things she has personally experienced. The story impacts upon life, including your own; something every writer attempts, though many do not succeed. Her characters are well crafted, interesting and intimately exposed.

Su-Jen (Annie being her adopted English name), is the little girl and principal protagonist, constantly reminded by her mother of the sacrifices made for her in moving from China to get away from "the communists," a concept Annie can hardly understand. Neither her father nor her mother is happy. Mother is depressed and deeply embittered; she misses the homeland immensely, and spares her daughter little of her anguish. She is beautiful, and much younger than her husband, whom she married--well below her station--as a result of circumstances over which she had little control. Dark family secrets emerge as Annie is exposed to her family history.

The plot is straightforward yet riveting. As the book evolves the family travails are incorporated into the problems of immigrants, especially those who are outside the "ordinary." People who migrate to better themselves and often do jobs which "proper" immigrants refuse to do, usually in challenging and frustrating situations. Annie is pushed to excel in school, which drags her further from the family as she becomes a "real Canadian;" something both parents wish for yet have difficulty accommodating as she gathers non-Asian friends and commands the new language. While useful as a translator for her parents, she is increasingly challenged linguistically in Chinese.

It is a wonderful read. A beautiful book. You'll find yourself disappointed that the book runs out of pages before you are fully satisfied, yet ending as it must.

Posted by Curmudgeon at May 10, 2010 1:54 PM