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Reviewed by Raymond Lum

Groan.

That was my initial reaction when I was given this book to review. Groan: the pages are decorated with Chinese characters without any reason for their use or explanation of what they mean (it becomes clear late in the book). Groan: the main protagonist is named “Jasmine.” Why not Lily, or Mei-Mei or any of the other stereotypical Chinese-girl names that smell as sweet as Rose? Chinese and Chinese-American girls do have other names.
But since I agreed to review it, I read it, and I am glad I did.

This is a charming, highly imaginative and inventive book that is equally well-written and well-researched.  It introduces to young adult readers a largely-unknown aspect of Chinese-American history that takes off first in Nebraska. How many books are there about the Chinese in Nebraska? Probably no others. The Chinese-American experience in the Midwest is largely, albeit not totally, ignored in fiction.

Here is the gist of the story: Jasmine, a third-generation Chinese-American travels to a small town in Nebraska for the annual celebration of Founders Day. Her Chinese great-grandfather was one of the founders. Along the way, Jasmine and her brother talk to friends on their cell phones, text others, and generally live the life of modern American teens. This is not another sappy book about respectful, super-bright, obedient Asian Americans who eat only Chinese food and attend after-hours Chinese school between music lessons. These kids are modern, they are real, they are in touch. Jasmine can’t speak Chinese or even use chopsticks, much less perform on violin at Carnegie Hall.

Soon after the family arrives in time for the Founders Day preparations, Jasmine’s uncle shows her and her friend Oz (short for her real name, “Australia”) an unopened trunk left in his care for Jasmine by her late grandmother. When she and Oz finger a medallion that gets hotter and hotter to the touch they are magically transported to the past, where the real story begins. There, Jasmine is kidnapped to become a slave to a rich Chinese family in San Francisco’s Chinatown while Oz experiences various adventures to try to find and save her. Jasmine’s hoped-for rescuer, a Caucasian man, turns out to be an accomplice of the Chinese procurer.

Sound ridiculous? It could be but it isn’t. This venture into the past takes the readers not only to meetings with people who become future ancestors but also deeply into the life of Chinese girls in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 19th century. Although the author does not say so, the episodes related are based on historical fact and the Mission Home that rescued girls and young women from slavery and enforced prostitution in San Francisco was real, as the Donaldina Cameron House.

One of the particular delights of this book is that although Jasmine and Oz are thrust into the past, at all times they are aware of being from the future and are equally aware of how things will turn out eventually and even try to manipulate events to ensure that they will turn out as they know them to turn out. Their determined 21st century American responses to 19th century situations deftly reveal  the difference between the accepted social place of women then and now. At the same time, we are given a view of 19th century horse-and-buggy life and the vicissitudes of Chinese immigrants in the lawless American West.
Several stories are woven into this narrative: Chinese-American history; the plight of mixed-race children; abuse of women; positive interactions between Chinese and Caucasians in 19th-century California; missionary work among immigrants; life in small-town America. And the narrative is, if not totally believable (unless we believe we can go back to the future), totally captivating. Some might groan that Jasmine’s and Oz’s experiences in 19th century San Francisco Chinatown cast Chinese immigrants in a bad light. Yet, the story is true to form: such things did happen, and in real life as in fiction some of its worse aspects were mitigated by good people.

The title of this book refers to the Chinese custom of cleaning ancestors’ graves once a year on a particular day. People who have no descendants, or whose descendants will not or cannot sweep their graves, suffer the ignominy of being abandoned in death, a most dreadful, face-losing, and unfilial situation for the deceased. How unswept graves figure into the story presented in this book is explained only near the end of the book.
Jasmine and her parents must have been Cantonese, who were the early Chinese immigrants from China’s Guangdong Province to the United States and to the Midwest. Yet, the author Romanizes the Chinese words in the book in an alteration of Cantonese and Mandarin, the latter Chinese language not intelligible to 19th century Chinese immigrants. For example, he expresses the Chinese word for “maternal grandmother” as wai po, but those sounds are Mandarin and not Cantonese. Jasmine is addressed in the book as “Moli hua,” the Mandarin term for “Jasmine flower,” but a real Jasmine from Nebraska would not have recognized that sound as Chinese, and no Chinese have three syllables in their forenames. Also, in several places, the author ignores the subjunctive mood of English, writing, for example, “if she was” rather than the correct “if she were.”

All in all, this is a book that can be highly recommended. I have passed it on to several people, including a friend to teaches English to immigrant children, and to my own grandchildren who will find in it an entertaining and painless way to learn about an important aspect of the history of their ancestors in the United States.

Royal Fireworks Press, which has been publishing books for gifted young readers since 1977, has another feather in its cap with this book. One might hope, however, that the publisher’s editors will take a more proactive role in future books and weed out anomalies before publication.

Robert Black, Unswept Graves (Unionville, NY: Royal Fireworks Press, 2012) 212 p.  ISBN 978-0-88092-903-5

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