In which I will talk about one of my childhood novels and my reaction rereading them. (Idea from Taste Life Twice
Blast from the Past: I first stumbled upon Child of the Owl in my school library, wandering around the shelves when I caught a glimpse of the cover. The one my library had was the red one, with the girl with a purple hoodie in front of a Chinese restaurant, holding a necklace in her hands. The cover girl looked like me. Back as a child I always sought out books with East Asian faces on the covers. I think the reason why I did this was because almost every novel I was ever handed always had stories about white people having their great splendid adventures and I longed for stories with people who looked like me being the star of the storyline for once. These stories were so far and few in between that I got into the habit of borrowing novels that showed an Asian face without so much as even checking out the summary or the first few pages. They didn’t even have to be Chinese. I’d read it as long as the cover showed an Asian face with familiar black hair and rounded nose and brown eyes. I came to read stories about Mongolians, Koreans, Japanese, Vietnamese etc etc that way.
I read it, and fell in love. I don’t think any book that I ever came across before or after that had me identifying with the protagonist as much as I did with Casey in Child of the Owl. Her Cantonese was abysmal! She had a hard time getting along with her peers! She constantly begged her Grandma to tell her stories of the past! She was snarky and fun, and, I will admit, one of my favourite parts was the bits when Casey tells us how sometimes she doesn’t feel Chinese enough, with all the people in Chinatown around her speaking the language fluently while she can barely understand simple phrases, not to even get into the whole reading thing.
And the story itself! It had family relationship explorations and mythology and generation history and *flails*. I think the part that charmed me the most was the story-within-a-story part of this novel, in which there was a myth-like story the Grandma tells about their ancestors, with owls and feathered robes and a touch of folklore magic, and I loved it. I distinctly remember re-checking out this worn out novel more than once just to reread that particular story. It was just, this novel felt like a novel catered specifically for someone like me, and that feeling I get whenever I remember this book, I can’t really describe it but it’s a bit like when you’re at the table, birthday cake in front of you, and smiling nonstop at everyone around you because they’re there to celebrate for you, and you feel like you could be someone special.
The Re-visiting Experience: I found this novel again after so many years at a secondhand bookstore for $4.99, along with other Laurence Yep novels. I seriously couldn’t believe my luck. I mean, even the big megachain bookstores don’t stock Laurence Yep stuff anymore, finding his old Golden Mountain Chronicles series (Which Child of the Owl is part of) was something like a miracle in my eyes. I grabbed just about all of them. (Unfortunately there wasn't the red cover version, but I'll take what I can get.)
Rereading Child of the Owl made me fall in love all over again. If anything, the book means so much more to me now, after all these years have passed. I now know that this novel is part of a longer generational story, a series that spans through the generations of one Chinese family as they move over to the US during the gold rush and over to the generations thereafter. The whole Golden Mountain Chronicles series came to mean a lot to me, the one and only children’s series that showed me a world that Chinese aren’t just newly come immigrants, the perpetual foreigner and can be rooted in the nation and have a long history within the United States. I mean, obviously I knew in my head that the Chinese were in United States since Gold Rush days etc, but there’s nothing like historical fiction to make you feel like it happened for real, reading words after words so that this fact starts to finally feel like truth in your heart. The Chinese were in America and have history there, and their stories are worth more than a footnote in a textbook, worth more than being just background props to the grand narrative. The Chinese-Americans too can star in their own history.
I still love the myth part of the novel a lot, but I also came to appreciate everyone else in the story beyond just being like CASEY IS THE BEST all the time, lol. The thing about this series is that you can be sure that everyone has a story, full lives of their own beyond what this particularly novel tells you. I liked Talia/Booger, Casey’s friend, quite a ways more now. There were more passages in this novel that struck me, my perspectives having changed when I grow older. That’s the thing I love about this novel, how I can grow up with it, reading again with changed eyes, different world perspectives and still come away with something, still coming out like I’ve just read something truly special.
Will quote a couple passages under cut (I know! I actually narrowed it down to only three! I would have quoted the whole myth part of the story, but er, I figured that would be way too much…)
I knew more about racehorses than I knew about myself—I mean myself as a Chinese. I looked at my hands again, thinking they couldn’t be my hands, and then I closed my eyes and felt their outline, noticing the tiny fold of flesh at the corners. Maybe it was because I thought of myself as an American and all Americans were supposed to be white like on TV or in books or in movies, but now I feel like some mad scientist had switched bodies on me like in all those monster movies, so that I had woken up in the wrong one. (pg. 35)
When I finally got to see the movies, they were completely different than I thought. I could see why Jeanie had liked them. For one thing, the Chinese were actually people who could be brave or sad. They had subtitles in English, too, which was good. It was something to see Chinese do more than be the sidekick to some white guy in a fight, or see the Chinese actually win. I mean, I almost felt like crying when I saw it: a kind of bubbling feeling deep down inside that had me almost cheering and crying while this Chinese mother led her three sons in beating up the bad guys. And it was even better when I saw the Chinese girls fighting. (pg. 108)
On Wednesday we got to recite the lesson from memory. The others had no trouble because they at least knew what sounds the words were supposed to be. I memorized as much of the lesson as I was able to get sounds for but even that made the teacher mad because while I think I got the sounds right, I didn’t know the tones. Every word in Chinese has a tone—like when your voice rises at the end of a question. I just threw in a tone wherever I wanted, so that at first the teacher winced and finally just hid her face in the textbook and told me to sit down. (pg. 54)
*blinks* Er, I hope these quotes don’t give off a It’s-All-About-The-Race-Factor thing, because it’s not. It’s just that these are the passages that meant the most to me due to personal biases.
… And sorry for making this post so insanely long. *dies*