Having just spent time in China while reading The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane with its themes of family ties and adoption, I dove into The Leavers only to find similar themes. However, Lisa Ko’s story is not about the adoption of an infant girl, but a Chinese-American fifth-grade boy living in New York City.
The story also brings the reader face to face with the shadowy life of an undocumented immigrant woman, trying to support herself and her child. Polly, a manicurist and mother of Deming, leaves one day for work and never returns. The loosely organized family—mom’s boyfriend Leon (not Deming’s father, also undocumented), his sister, Vivian, and her son—have no idea where Polly has gone, nor when she might return. After some months, Vivian surrenders Deming to the foster system as an abandoned child.
Thereby hangs the tale of the conflicts Deming faces when Kay and Peter, his foster and then adoptive parents, strip him of his name, his history. All with the best of intentions, of course. Characters are complex, unique, and well-developed. They defy stereotypes.
Polly describes her immigration dilemma:
“My old roommate Cindy had told me it was a waste to marry a person without papers. And Didi had hit the jackpot: Qua was American-born, so she had a good chance at getting a green card. I imagined being without papers for the rest of my life, unable to drive or leave the country, stuck in the worst jobs. No different than staying in the village. I didn’t want a small, resigned life but I also craved certainty, safety.”
Deming (now Daniel) spends years being angry at his mother, at Leon and Vivian, at Kay and Peter. In his twenties, finding some passion for music, but failing at college, in debt, and addicted to online poker, he runs away to China. He reconnects with his birth mother. Polly reluctantly tells Deming the horrible story of her arrest, imprisonment, deportation, her nightmares, and her guilt. Deming thinks…
“It was a funny thing, forgiveness. You could spend years being angry with someone and then realize you no longer felt the same, that your usual mode of thinking had slipped away when you weren’t noticing. He could see the flash of worry in his mother’s face as she waited for his reply, like he had heard in Kay and Peter’s shaking voices when they said good-bye to him earlier, that in the past few months, his fears of being unwanted had dissipated. Because Mama—and Kay, and Peter—were trying to convince him that they were deserving of his love, not the other way around.”
And lots of conflicted thoughts about Deming’s adoptive parents, whom he never calls Mom and Dad:
“He recalled she and Peter had insisted on English, his new name, the right education. How better and more hinged on their ideas of success, their plans. Mama, Chinese, the Bronx, Deming: they had never been enough. He shivered, and for a brief, horrible moment, he could see himself the way he realized they saw him—as someone who needed to be saved.”
Ko calls much into question here in such a compelling way. Don’t be too quick to judge the characters we meet in books or in life. Everyone’s story offers more than meets the eye. Recommend.