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Steer Toward Rock Hardcover – May 13, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
This eagerly awaited follow-up to Fae Myenne Ng's first novel, Bone, again addresses the issues of Chinese-American identity in this moving, unflinching yet sometimes witty story. Jack Moon Szeto enters San Francisco in 1952, falsely posing as the son of Yi-Tung Gold Szeto, a registered U.S. citizen. In return, Jack must pay Szeto by working for two years and marrying a fake wife. Employed as a butcher, Jack takes the younger Joice Qwan as his lover. Even though she becomes pregnant, Joice refuses to marry Jack. Despondent, Jack attempts to nullify his contract with Szeto before entering the INS's Chinese Confession Program and renouncing his false identity, resulting in Szeto's deportation, but not citizenship for Jack. Toward the end, the story shifts to Jack's congenial relationship with his spirited daughter Veda, whose growing mission is to protect Jack by making him a naturalized U.S. citizen. Ng's simple, sturdy yet poetic prose is juxtaposed against the clinical language of Jack's immigration documents; the result is a nuanced portrayal of two generations and the many challenges they face in their quest for security and fulfillment. (May)
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Fifteen years after the publication of her critically acclaimed first novel, Bone, Ng returns to the scene, offering a searing portrait of another immigrant struggling to get by in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Butcher Jack Szeto spends long hours at his job, attempting to buy his freedom from Yi-Tung Gold Szeto. Jack entered the country illegally in 1952, posing as the son of the powerful entrepreneuer; in return, he must work off his debt and pretend to marry the much younger woman Yi-Tung wants to take as his second wife. Jack, however, has fallen in love with free-spirited Joice Qwan, and when she tells him she is pregnant with his child, he longs for the freedom to marry her. He decides to cooperate with the Chinese Confession program, telling them of his false identity, which results in Szeto’s deportation. ThoughYi-Tung exacts a terrible revenge and Joice refuses to marry him, Jack finds true serenity in the years spent raising their daughter. Ng brings to this moving story both a sensuous, poetic style and an understated tone that only serves to underline the immigrant struggle. --Joanne Wilkinson
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Top Customer Reviews
So the young man, who must make payments to his mob boss for the right to live, sustains himself at this ghastly moment. And :Steer Toward Rock" becomes the aphorism by which this novel's characters must live if they want to find meaning, family, and happiness. Impressive for its sustained obliquity, Fae Myenne Ng's book brought me into the Chinese culture in San Francisco's Chinatown like no other book ever did. She stretches this culture taut across a frame of trans-Pacific exploitation and racketeering. We learn of the purchased boy from China whose name becomes Jack Moon Szeto, a multiple falsity rooted in a scheme to allow illegal entry to Chinese immigrants. Before confessing his status to the American authorities, he becomes another link in the illegal and oppressive chain. He must take a bogus bride purchased for him from China, but here he finds companionship and eventually fathers a fiery, headstrong daughter.
This entire history leads to the daughter. This is really her story - how she hasn't steered toward the rock of honesty in her love life, but does free her father from the tangled, fear-ridden narrative of his past by shepherding him through the naturalization process.
I love the conversations between the Chinese men in San Francisco. They holler at each other, tease each other, voices seemingly raised at all times; they want to get each other's goats. Through it all, though, there is honesty, good will, humor, and bemusement at life.(Jack himself exhibits wisdom unusual in one his age; his almost every statement, every piece of advice for friends and family drips with ancient Chinese wisdom.) This banter, with its glimpse into Chinese culture, is a major delight here, and worth the price of admission all by itself. I could have wished for a more-closely-described San Francisco, but this may have been absent by authorial intent. She tells her story obliquely, until roughly the last quarter of the book, when the daughter's character takes center stage and the narrative takes on greater concreteness. Until then, though, the story is told as though through a mist, becoming visible like Victorian homes on a foggy day in San Francisco.
It would be hard to top this book's intent look at the San Francisco Chinese culture, or its treatment of the Hon Pak confession program, pursued in the 1950s by U.S. Immigration authorities as a sort of bait-and-switch tactic to get better records on Chinese and other immigrants. The family histories feel all too true, and the saga of exploitation all too consistent with the world's ever-present greed.
Fae Myenne Ng's concise prose is full of richness and insight. I felt compelled to read carefully, as I didn't want to miss anything. Her generational Chinese American characters have sharp and smart observations about themselves and their lives while living in San Francisco's Chinatown. They must navigate their way thru harsh realities during the McCarthy era, yet each character's journey is written with compassion; the joys, the obstacles and limitations voiced by indentured paper son immigrants and their fractured families.
However, the question what is worth sacrificing regardless of the consequences, is at the heart of the novel. What happens when one chooses to rid a false identity and begin creating a new one? What kinds of options are truly available? Is the potential for love worth risking deportment or freedom?
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