Locke 1928

Posted Apr 6 2008

I remember walking in Oakland, CA during the 2006 May Day protests against anti-immigration legislation. Never before had I seen so many Latino people waving the U.S. flag. In that moment I realized that the traditional American symbols don’t define us. We define the symbols and places in which we live. The protest was a moment that shifted my perspective from being one of, “Only old U.S. vets wave the flag” to “This country should be proud to see such individuals and families carrying its flag”.

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.

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Shawna Yang Ryan, a teacher at City College in San Francisco and winner of the Maurice Prize for Fiction, recently published her first book: Locke 1928  (c. 2007)

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

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 th
ey 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 image
s 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 c
ontains 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.


1. Mariana Torres said at June 12, 2008 1:42 pm:

i think this book sounds really great. As I was reading this i thought it was similar to the 1984 book. Clarissa just like Winston wants to have a relationship with another person but society doesnt really let it happen. Society makes a big impact in everyones life. For example we cant even have our own opinion because society has already decided for us.

2. Alma Ramirez said at June 12, 2008 1:52 pm:

Well books that run to slow sort of bore me. But on the way that you describe this book it's like maybe it will be good. The reason is because of the fact that people in this story seem to have more drama going on in there life than the one in my life at the moment. Which is much more better to my advantage. It seems hard to believe all the things that will be going on, because like of the fact that they are soo detailed, about the women in that town, the prostitution and the working women. It is hard to believe that someone will actually write a book like that. But i think now i will go pick that book up and read it.

3. Patty Barraza said at June 12, 2008 8:57 pm:

Well looking at the cover of this book seemsd to me that this book is sad. I think this book would of been boring, but then after i read what you wrote i think this book is quite interesting. Its a book about what happend to this woman, the struggles she went through..I think i will read this book in the future.

4. Tania said at June 13, 2008 8:15 pm:

By reading this it seems that this book is sad. And that what it's about is about peopke like ere in the united states that want to be able do something but they cant because they are scared that they can get deported. Because for the immigrants the decisions are already made for us. We can't get a california driver's license so we need to drive carefuly and wth out a license. This is because the government don't want to give them because they judge us for being criminals. It seems that it's a sad story for what you wrote and that it relates to 1984 book. That they cant be togother because of their economy and society. But i think that it shouldn't really matter because as far as they are living togother it's good. But i dont think that is fair that they can't do what they feel to do just because they are different types of society.

5. Ernesto said at June 21, 2008 1:02 pm:

I think a books that you should read is Revenge of The \"illegal Alien\" by Cesar A Cruz. He is a mexican poet, educator, and human rights freedom fighters. I think he was born in Oakland, CA and the book was publish in Oakland. He has meet many famous people such as Dolorest huertas. Dont judge the book from its cover. It is just poems that leaves you thinking at the end. One topic he talks about is Cesar Chavez. He explains that people are just using his image and words for money. He also belives that Cesar is not resting in peace due to the fact how people use his images. He believes in Cesar Chavez thought but is angry how others dont use it right. Another topic he mentions is how The Hyphy Movement and generaly Hyphy itself is compare to Malcolm X history. There are some topics that can be criticize.

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