WOODEN FISH SONGS by Ruthanne Lum McCunn


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 A second novel by McCunn (Thousand Pieces of Gold, 1981) about the plight of Chinese immigrants, this one again tracing through the imagined life of a real person the raw misery of loneliness and fear and the brave insistence on survival. Botanist Lue Gim Gong (d. 1925) performed experiments in hybridization that made a seminal contribution to Florida's citrus industry, yet like many Chinese in the US, he suffered ostracism inspired by prejudice. His mother, Sum Jui, is the first narrator of these ``wooden fish songs'' of lament and emptiness; her story begins in 1842 in rural China and chronicles family tyranny, hunger, worry for children and grandchildren--one forever lost, one murdered. But Sun Jui draws courage from her good husband and hopes for a better future for Gim Gong, who, like his brother and uncle, travels to America. Life among the ``foreign ghosts'' is hard and confusing for the Chinese, who are themselves incomprehensible to the citizens of North Adams, Massachusetts, where spinster Fanny Burlingame--the second narrator--is intrigued by the fresh and eager intelligence of young Lue. Starved for education herself, Fanny becomes the boy's tutor, friend, and later patron. But Fanny believes (despite some misgivings) that she must convert Lue to Christianity. Predictably, then, when the good son returns to China, he brings with him the curse of these alienating ``ghosts.'' After Fanny's death in Florida, Lue continues his work in the US with orange varieties. His scientific contributions are welcomed, but he is still shunned socially. As Sheba, daughter of slaves (and narrator number three), declares, ``Lue cried in the night'' like the Conjure Man of Africa in his magic-alligator shape. Communal ignorance and fear--in both America and China--have done their corrosive worst. A worthy tale of landmark events in a Chinese-American's remarkable life--and hard times--in two cultures.

Pub Date: May 15th, 1995
ISBN: 0-525-93927-X
Page count: 300pp
Publisher: Dutton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 1995