Jamie Ford movingly explores the fascinating premise that trauma can be passed down from generation to generation in his fourth novel, The Many Daughters of Afong Moy.
Afong Moy was the first Chinese woman known to set foot on American soil in 1836. She was forced to entertain on the stage as “The Chinese Lady.” She toured American cities and met President Andrew Jackson. Her popularity declined in the 1840s and she disappeared in 1850.
Ford imagines what brought Afong to the United States and what happened to her. She is supposed to marry an elderly man in China, even though she is in love with a young man. When her future husband dies before the wedding, she is forced to marry him as a “ghost bride’’. The other jealous wives decide to send her to America, where she is forced to perform on stage, showing off her “exotic’’ ways and her bound feet.
Ford’s sweeping story follows six generations of memorable women who descended from Afong Moy, each with traumas they must deal with. I read that some readers were confused by trying to follow the various timelines. I found it helpful to have a list of all the women to keep track of the plotline:
- Afong Moy comes to the United States in 1836.
- Lai King Moy lives in San Francisco in 1892 until a terrible plague and fire force her parents to send her back to China on a ship by herself.
- Zou Yi (Zoe) Moy lives in England in 1927 at an unusual boarding school in England, where students have a choice of what they will study.
- Fei-jn (Faye) Moy is an American nurse serving in China in 1942 during the war between that country and Japan.
- Margaret (Greta) Moy lives in Seattle in 2014 and is a successful dating app designer.
- Dorothy Moy lives in the future year of 2045 with her daughter Annabel. She is tired of struggling with chronic depression and worries about her daughter showing similar tendencies. Dorothy learns of a doctor who helps patients explore their family’s past traumas over the generations. Through this experimental treatment, Dorothy learns about her ancestors. She is determined to break the cycle of mental illness that has plagued her family.
I enjoyed reading about Afong Moy’s imagined descendants, and how they struggle with trauma at different times in history. They are incredibly strong women who try to survive and overcome difficult circumstances. While trauma may be passed down, Ford shows that love does too.
Ford, who was our One Book, One Community author in 2019 for Love and Other Consolation Prizes, said he worked on the proposal for The Many Daughters of Afong Moy while he stayed at Ragdale, an artist residency program in Lake Forest. Jenna Bush Hager, who picked the novel for her Today book club, is working on making Ford’s family saga into a television series. I’m thrilled for Ford, who is an incredibly nice person and deserves all the success.