The Leavers

The Leavers

By Lisa Ko

Published 2017

Read Dec 2018

The author tells her story through the voices of the two major characters via a number of flash-backs and flash-forwards. 

Deming Guo is 6 when his mother, Polly, disappears mysteriously.  His sections tells his perception of the story:  his last day with his mother; living in the Bronx with Polly, his boyfriend Leon, his sister Vivian and Vivian’s son Michael;  early days with adoptive parents Peter and Kay Wilkerson; and present time (age 22) as he struggles to gain a footing in the music scene with high school friend Roland after he has dropped out of college.  Deming is renamed Daniel Wilkerson when he is adopted and moved to a small town six hours from New York City.  He is continually conflicted about his feelings towards his American parents while missing his Chinese mother and especially by not knowing why she left.  He can’t follow, with conviction, Kay and Peter’s preferred path for him to be a college graduate although he makes some stumbling steps along that road.  Deming/Daniel is contacted by his boyhood friend, Michael, and he slowly and painfully finds a path to his mother, now in China, while wrestling with his feelings for Kay and Peter and while wandering into his future.  

Polly’s sections are written as though she is talking to Deming.  Through her voice we learn that Peilan Guo was born and raised in a small village outside Fuzhou, China.  She left her village as a teenager to work in the city of Fuzhou.  A boyfriend from the village eventually went there as well and Peilan became pregnant.  To avoid marriage she left, with financing from a money lender, and entered New York City illegally.  She lived in Chinatown in a makeshift dormitory with other Chinese immigrants seeking to pay-off their debt to a moneylender.  After the baby was born, she eventually turned to a common practice for immigrants from China and sent her son to China to be raised by his grandfather until he is was ready for school.  Deming returned to Polly in Chinatown when he was five and his grandfather died. After Polly met Leon, another undocumented Chinese, she and Deming left their dormitory in Chinatown to live in the Bronx with him, his sister, Vivian, and her son, Michael.   Polly wanted to leave NYC to go to a job in Orlando, Florida but both Leon and Deming object.  Near the end of the novel we learn from Polly what happened the day she disappeared and how she accidentally became so completely separated from her son.

 Through this engaging story Ko exposes us to some reasons why people are willing to risk much to enter the US, what they are willing to endure to stay here, and the consequences they face when things go wrong.   The picture she paints of Peter and Kay is somewhat unflattering, but it does cause the reader to consider the child involved in a foster care turned adoption situation and the special issues associated with cross-cultural adoptions.  Deming/Daniel and Polly’s stories come to some resolution by the end of the novel but their next steps remain somewhat ambiguous which was appreciated by this reader.    Ko offers much for discussion and the book should be a welcomed addition to a book discussion group. 

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