I know some readers avoid sad books. Life is sad enough, they argue.
I get it. Sometimes you need a fun book to help you escape the heaviness of the modern world. However, I admit I have a penchant for novels that don’t sugar-coat the sorrow life can bring. The novels that long live in my book memory all had sad scenes that deeply affected me. As an early reader, I cried over the beloved Matthew dying in Anne of Green Gables. In high school, I wept over The Grapes of Wrath. As an adult, my heart was broken by Lonesome Dove’s ending. These books are among my all-time favorites, no doubt because they left lasting impressions.
Four Treasures of the Sky by Jenny Tinghui Zhang is the latest novel that left me gutted with its often sorrowful and sometimes tragic scenes. This brilliant historical tale is set after the Chinese Exclusion Act is passed by Congress in 1882. Zhang said she was inspired to write the story after her father saw a historical marker in Idaho noting the “Chinese Hanging Tree”, where white vigilantes hanged five Chinese men in 1885 for the unsupported accusation that they murdered a white shop owner.
The progatonist is Daiyu, a 13-year-old girl who is forced to leave her loving home in China after her parents are arrested. Disguised as a boy named Feng, Daiyu finds refuge with a calligraphy master who teaches her his art in exchange for cleaning his school. Her new, peaceful life is soon upended when she is kidnapped. After learning English, she is forced to travel to San Francisco and work in a brothel. She manages to escape and flee to Idaho with the help of a young Chinese man. With anti-immigrant sentiment growing among whites, Daiyu tries to survive, pretending to be a boy named Jacob. Two kind Chinese shopkeepers give Daiyu a job, shelter, and a sense of family.
Daiyu is a strong character who comes of age at a terrible time in history for Chinese Americans. Zhang’s lyrical writing with vivid descriptions gives a different viewpoint of the Old West. You won’t find any cattle drives or gun-slinging cowboys. Her debut novel is exceptional, and a must-read for historical fiction readers. It will stay with me for a long time.