By Dori Jones Yang. SparkPress, 2017. 256 pages. $12.95/paperback; $9.95/eBook. Recommended for ages 10–14.Buy from QuakerBooks
It seems almost anticlimactic when the 12-year-old protagonist steps up to shake the hand of President Ulysses S. Grant, just outside the clanking, whirring Machinery Hall at the 1876 Centennial World’s Fair in Philadelphia, Pa. Woo Ka-Leong, also called “Leon” by his American hosts, has journeyed by train from Connecticut with a delegation of approximately 30 Chinese boys in order to grasp the president’s congratulating hand. Impressive, yes, but measured against his earlier journey from nineteenth-century Imperial China to the roaring young republic of the United States, it’s a walk in the park.
Elder brother Woo Ka-Sun, called “Carson” by the Americans, and Leon had arrived barely a year earlier. Though mere boys, they were hand-picked gentlemen scholars from a civilization so ancient that both the language they spoke and the customs they followed were nuanced with inflections and freighted with imperatives, making every step a potential misstep—comic or tragic.
Industrious scholars and vital with youth, their mission was to learn all they could of America’s continent-spanning industrial machinery, and to bring that knowledge back to a Confucian civilization where everyone’s “continent” was their own place in a strictly ordered society. It’s a Herculean task to jump-start a civilization while standing four-square on that civilization’s ancient grounds, and elder brother Carson falters badly.
The wonder is that Leon, a young David, persists in scholarship and, even without a hand up from President Grant, becomes an engineer with college training and returns to his homeland, a success and pioneer of his country’s Western-oriented future.
A literary wonder is the subtlety, both entertaining and educating, with which the author articulates the tremendous task of acculturation. The young boy must first accomplish this before finding his legs at the start line of a culture running in so many different directions from his careful Confucian upbringing. Hope and youth, curiosity and persistence guide young Leon to embrace the “forbidden pleasures” of baseball and Western science with the hard-won ease of sliding into home base.