Monday, December 13, 2010

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: Take Me Home by Brian Leung

The first book in my Kentucky authors week is Take Me Home by Brian Leung. Although not a KY native (neither am I) Leung is currently an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Louisville, and the protagonist hails from KY, so this book counts.

Chronologically, Take Me Home tells the story of Addie Maine, a down-and-out but plucky young woman in the late 1800's who moves west from Kentucky to Dire, Wyoming, upon a summons from her brother, Tommy. Tommy wants to try his hand at homesteading, but the land is rocky, dry, and barren. So he sets her up in his hole-in-the-ground shack to hold onto the claim while he earns their keep in the local coal mine. Before long, Addie is hunting game and selling it to the miners with the help of Wing Lee, the cook in the Chinese half of the mining camp. Unfortunately, the friendship that springs up between them (the one redeeming part of their lonely lives) is a very bad idea. The Chinese are hated by the white people of the town, who blame them for all that’s wrong with the hardscrabble existence that goes along with being coal miners out in the middle of nowhere.

The book actually opens with Addie as an old woman returning to Dire for the retirement party of a different Chinese miner many years after the events that caused her to flee Wyoming. (There was a riot against the Chinese, during which she was shot–this isn’t a spoiler, you find this out at the beginning of the book.) The book is told as a series of episodes that flash backward and forward among Addie’s early months in Dire, the time immediately surrounding the riot, and the time of her return. Eventually the time points converge. Wing Lee’s point of view is introduced in some of the episodes. The narrative is somewhat disjointed, particularly starting out, until you get used to the time shifts. But maybe this disorientation, this difficulty settling in, is intentional—to give you a feel for how Addie and Wing felt, always out of place, never able to get comfortable or belong.

There are beautiful passages in the book and the characters are well developed. Given the circular way the book is written, you know the ending as you start; but even so, there are questions to be answered as the story unfolds. It becomes more interesting as you delve deeper into the lives of the main characters. I wouldn’t say that I was surprised by anything that happened. On the other hand, I didn’t feel cheated. The story unfolded exactly as it had to unfold. It’s a satisfying tale. And incredibly sad.

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