In this debut novel, a Taiwanese-American family 30 miles outside Anchorage struggles to live after the death of their youngest daughter.
Ten-year-old Gavin loses consciousness after he comes home from school sick, the day before the Challenger launch is broadcast on TV. When he comes to a few days later, his world has been wrenched apart: Every astronaut on the shuttle is dead—and so is his 4-year-old sister, Ruby, who contracted meningitis from him. Immediately, Gavin is saturated with a guilt he doesn’t know how to express: “The heaviness on me was like dread. But what came after dread? What was on the other side of it, once a thing was done, done, and done, and dread had thickened into something solid?” His other family members, including 5-year-old brother Natty and older sister Pei-Pei, treat each other with a quiet kind of violence, and the rift between his parents expands. His mother wants the family to move back to Taiwan, where she and his father grew up; his dad, an insubstantial man who drills water wells and repairs septic tanks, maintains his innocence when sued by a family whose child was poisoned by a well he worked on. The lawsuit, grasped only hazily by the children, threatens to drain the family’s savings and evict them from their home. The novel is full of harsh beauty, both in its prose and its attentive depictions of an ever shifting Alaskan environment, all frigid air and Sitka spruces and vast, treacherous mudflats. Death is omnipresent, from a tree that nearly falls on Pei-Pei to the flying squirrel skeletons the family clears from their attic, as well as a sense of constant, oppressive emptiness. “It was impossible to erase the feeling of the unoccupied parking spaces around us. So many freshly painted rectangles and no cars. To one side was an empty building, to the other, empty roads.” The book's main mood is one of intense suffocation: Gavin’s family is completely unable to communicate, and events pile up, disjointed and without explanation. The family doesn’t belong, the novel makes achingly, physically explicit: not to the community, where they stick out because of their race and lack of money, and not to the land, which is unwelcoming to any form of life.