Posted Apr 6 2008
Reading Ryan’s book reemphasized the lesson I learned in May 2006. Not because the characters are exceptionally heroic but because their story is unique and specific to California in the early 1900s. Ryan is able to portray the depths to which the characters need one another, even as they seek self –determination. While her book is not politically motivated it is a contribution to the ever involving understanding of our culture and history.
The book takes place in Locke, California, a town near the Sacramento River Delta. The time frame is the early 1900s when anti-miscegenation and immigration laws created bachelor societies of predominantly Chinese men.
While the community is predominantly a male society, the story is driven by female characters and the universal confrontation between who you were, who you are and who you set out to be.
Locke is a town of laborers, complete with a brothel and church. The tone of the book reflects the rhythm of the town: slow, steady but with an undercurrent of tension. Take Poppy See, one of the few Chinese women who lives in Locke and dreams of having a settled life with a husband, perhaps some children. Her brutal reality is that she is the madam of Locke’s brothel. Her reality is also that she can see other’s desires and destinies. She is highly attuned to her environment and those around her, yet she can not or perhaps chooses not to see her own bleak future.
Take perhaps Clarissa, the preacher’s wife and the only white woman in town who is not a prostitute. She bucks societal expectations to marry a Chinese man. She is the one who gives lodging, food and clothing to the lost and wayward, yet she also calculates her moves carefully so that she does not give in to the suicidal temptation of stepping before a moving vehicle.
Into this small town already ripe with conflict and contradiction suddenly arrive three boatwomen from China. The town changes immediately with the arrival of the three women. One claims to be the wife of Richard, another key character who left China with the desire to be thoroughly remade.
The other two women are single and suddenly find themselves the objects of desire of fifty-two bachelors. Because the three women are coming from the homeland of most of the townspeople, they bring with them the regret and hope that come with leaving one’s country to settle in another. They also reveal how inextricably linked are the past, present, and future. The town must grapple with its roots, with its past mingling with its present, and with its projections into the future. Even a character such as Chloe, a young girl originally from a town near San Francisco, is confronted with her place in relationship to these newly arrived women as well as to the other townspeople, and most importantly with herself. Yet the questions don’t stop here, for are these women really real, or might they be ghosts?
Part of the book’s strength lies in Ryan’s ability to develop the relationships between characters. They do not fit their stereotypical expectations. No perfect silhouette exists here. The ties to the “motherland” are not unbreakable nor are they the same for everyone. The men and women who leave China for the U.S. are not entirely noble nor valiantly sacrificing for love and family. The non-Chinese are not the enemy exploiting all the Chinese. What is here in this world of thoughts, feelings and sensations are people making decisions based on the options they perceive to be before them, and the desires they feel pushing from inside.
The desire to love, to be valued, to touch the taboo, are all feelings that we can relate to. Added to these ideas is the focus on a populace of the United States that continues to play but a small role in most peoples’ mind. Most people would say “Oh yeah, the Chinese helped build the railroad,” or “Sure prostitution has always existed.” Yet most of us do not give thought to the psychological and spiritual lives of the people underlying this common knowledge. Few people talk about what workers did besides work and die or what women did besides stand as a cornerstone of the family. Nevertheless, within the brief historical facts lie an abundance of stories that make this country unique.
Locke 1928 is worth reading because the rhythm of the language is simple, but also beautiful and strong enough to move the plot forward. The characters’ thoughts and the narrator’s descriptions tap into the readers’ ability to hold contrasting words, images and ideas together in one hand: Two streets in a small town---all silent (44).
The language also contrasts the minutia with grand concepts. Ryan knows when to use simple straightforward sentences and when to extend, pull out the words to change the balance and weight of meaning and sound: She looks toward the pulpit. It needs flowers. The Christ on the cross behind the pulpit hangs with strained tendons. She’ll have to buy flowers. (223)
And, in a community where women are few but the yearning for them strong, the language must be sensuous and so it is, provoking images and possibly even physical reactions in the reader: She gave herself up so easily, didn’t even mew in protest when he shoved his finger up between her legs.(214)
This novel is one that unravels slowly, perhaps too slowly for some. It feels as if the air in the town of Locke is so heavy that it never runs, only walks. Nevertheless, the book contains layers of history, stories, social relationships, and poetic language woven throughout.
Some advise that when you eat, only eat and savor the tastes. In the same manner, when reading Locke 1928, savor the words, the memories, and feelings which are not meant to be grasped tightly but will be swept away with the ease and flow of a cold river.