Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Fire Horse Girl by Kay Honeyman

Chan Jan Wai lost his wife when she gave birth to their only surviving child, a daughter named Jade Moon. Jade Moon was born during the Year of the Fire Horse - a bad omen for her family. Girls born during such a year were said to be dangerous, bringing tragedy to their families and Jade did just that, for her mother died giving birth to her.

Now seventeen years old, Jade lives with her father and grandfather and their servant, Nushi,  in the small village of Jinjiu on their family's ancestral lands. Because she was born in the year of the Fire Horse Jade has been told that she is cursed, that she brings bad luck to everyone she meets by her strong will. As a result, she has a reputation for being wild and headstrong. She cannot be what others want her to be - quiet, soft spoken and agreeable. Instead, she is outspoken and challenging. Jade finds her life in China like a prison with no future and a fiery reputation that she seems to live up to. Jade's father had intended to marry off Jade but no one will marry a Fire Horse girl.

Jade's future is about to change though, when a stranger, Sterling Promise, arrives in Jinjiu, claiming to be the adopted son of her father's brother, Chan Jan Keung - an uncle she did not know. Sterling has come to convince Jade's father to travel with him to America to start a business. When Jade learns of Sterling's plans to travel to America, she is resentful because she knows she will never be allowed such an opportunity.  Jade dreams of a life bigger than that found in her village. Living in America would present her with the chance to finally be who she truly is without the judgement of others.

At first Chan Jan Wai is reluctant to accompany Sterling, but he changes his mind and also announces that Jade will travel with them to America. They travel to Hong Kong to board a ship that will take them to America. But first they meet Master Yue, for whom Sterling worked when he was younger. This is when Jade learns about Sterling's past and begins to distrust his motives for traveling to America.

When Jade, her father and Sterling board the steamer to take them to America, Jade is sent to bunk with Mrs. Ying and several other women passengers. Mrs. Ying tells Jade about America and how the Chinese are poorly treated there and how Americans do not want the Chinese in their country. She also warns Jade to learn what plans her Father has for her as most Chinese women who travel to America are either married off or forced into prostitution.

Jade learns from Sterling Promise that she must study and learn her "story" in order to get into America. After the 1906 fire in San Francisco, the list of American citizens was lost. The list needed to be remade so when the Chinese were asked if they were born in America, they all answered yes, meaning even those not born in America became American citizens since there was no way to disprove their claims. When they were asked if they had children, the Chinese increased the number of children they had in their families saying that some sons were born in America but sent back to China. These sons became known as paper sons because the American Chinese sell their identities to those back in China trying to come to America. They do not exist except on paper. This is how Jade's uncle was able to go to America for Mr. Yue.

Jade also discovers that her father plans to marry her off to Sterling Promise. When the three reach America, they are sent to Angel Island, an immigration station to process immigrants from Asia. Jade is separated from her father and Sterling and eventually interviewed. When Jade and her father are refused entry, but Sterling is allowed to do so, Jade uncovers the terrible truth about what the two men had planned for her.

Jade's father had no intention of staying in America and deliberately thwarted their entry by giving incorrect information to immigration officers. The plan was to have Jade marry Sterling Promise in America and return to China with her father. She was brought to America to ensure that this would happen - that Sterling would keep his promise and that Jade would actually marry him. To get her back to China, the father would have suggested they return for a visit and then Jade would not have been allowed to return to America. She would have provided son so that the Chan family line could continue. However since Jade and her father must now return to China, things must change. Jade's father tells Sterling Promise that he expects him to return to China in a year to marry Jade.

When Sterling and Jade discuss their future, Jade tells Sterling that she only wishes to be allowed into America. She refuses his offer of marriage and furious that he has abandoned her and her father, devises a brilliant plan to escape from Angel Island. Stealing Sterling's immigration papers and disguising herself as a young man, Jade makes it to San Francisco only to be caught up in a war between two tongs who are fighting for control of Chinatown. She is taken in by the leader of one of the tongs, Mr.Hon and is trained to be a fighter. Hon runs many gambling houses but is looking to expand his business into prostitution. As tensions escalate, Jade must use all of  her characteristic wit and fiery determination as a Fire Horse to save herself, a friend and possibly many others too.

The Fire Horse is a wonderful novel about a young woman's struggle to find her identity, to accept who she is and to have others accept her as well. This struggle is set against the backdrop of China and America in the early 20th century. China is a place where tradition and family duty still take precedence in contrast to America where new ways quickly replace tradition. In China Jade cannot be true to herself, and she hopes that in America it will be different. However, once in America, circumstances quickly force Jade to outwardly change who she is in order to survive while staying true to her Fire Horse qualities. This is the reverse of what her existence in China was;outwardly she was Jade Moon but inside she had to pretend to be someone else. This double identity is reflected in the cover of the novel which gives readers hint of what is to happen in the novel.

Woven into all of this is the background historical setting of life in Chinatown in San Francisco in 1923. The Chinese immigrants have not integrated into American society but have their own area of the city and it is rife with gambling and the trafficking of women for prostitution. Making this setting more believable is the inclusion of the character Miss Donaldson, who is a stand in for the real life Miss Donaldina Cameron, an activist who helped trafficked Asian women. Readers can learn more about Miss Cameron here.

The author accurately portrays how difficult it was for Chinese immigrants to come to America during this time. As a result of deeply rooted racial prejudice, they were not welcome in the country and it took weeks, even years to be processed at Angel Island, often leading them to commit suicide. They were grilled over the most minute details, in contrast to white European immigrants who were processed on the other side of the continent, at Ellis Island, in a matter of hours.

Honeyman does an excellent job of developing her characters. Jade Moon is a terrific protagonist, strong, full of life, and fiery. She grows throughout the novel, coming to believe in herself, recognizing and accepting her weaknesses and her strengths. Sterling Promise helps Jade in her journey, while also developing himself. He comes to see Jade's temperament not as a curse but as a gift that has helped him learn about himself.

With its upbeat conclusion and unusual subject, The Fire Horse Girl is an intriguing, well written novel that will appeal to many historical fiction fans.

Book Details:
The Fire Horse Girl by Kay Honeyman
Arthur A. Levine Books: An imprint of Scholastic Books    2013
321 pp.

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