Friday, March 3, 2017

Threads by Ami Polonsky

Threads is a parallel narrative, telling the stories of twelve-year-old Clara Clay who lives in Evanston, Illinois with her parents and thirteen-year-old Yuming Niantu who is an orphan in China. Their lives intersect in a way neither can ever imagine, tied together by the thread of one action. The novel opens with a copy of Yuming's note hidden in a purse on May 16 while she is working in a factory in Hebei Province, in China.

Clara and her parents are still grieving after the death of Clara's older sister Lola who was adopted from an orphanage in China. Lola who was abandoned in a cardboard box in Molihua Park in Shanghai, was found by a man and taken to an orphanage where her birthday was estimated to be October 1. Unfortunately, Lola developed acute lymphoblastic leukemia and despite chemotherapy, she relapsed and died.

Clara's narrative opens with her being dropped off at Bellman's department store on July 1 with her "used-to-be best friend", Dahlia. Clara has known Dahlia since they were babies. Their families met through an adoption support group because Dahlia and Clara's sister Lola were adopted from China. Clara decides she doesn't want stay with Dahlia and she tells her she's leaving. Since Lola's death on May 15, after her long battle with cancer, Clara feels disconnected from Dahlia. She hides from Dahlia and texts her father asking him to come pick her up. They arrange to meet in twenty minutes but in the meantime Clara hides from Dahlia in a booth that has leather purses on display. While waiting for her father to show up, Clara spots an ugly yellow purse on clearance and wondering why it's on sale looks inside,unzipping various pockets. In an inside pocket Clara discovers a piece of white paper and a photograph. Unbelievably the photograph is of Molihua Park in Shanghai where Clara and her family have visited and also where Lola was found as a baby. The note is written by thirteen-year-old Yuming Niantu who is a prisoner in a pink factory along with twenty-two other children and asks for help.

Clara's father can't imagine twenty-two children trapped in a factory making purses. At Clara's urging he decides to call the Chinese consulate in Chicago where Susan Zhau takes his call and the information about the note and photograph. She is abrupt with Clara's father, Al and requests that he send the note and photograph to the embassy before hanging up on him. Clara is doubtful the consulate will help but she makes sure that her father makes copies of the photograph and the note. Clara remembers visiting Molihua Park when she was ten and Lola was eleven - more than a year before Lola's relapse. Unconvinced that the Chinese consulate will act, Clare wonders if she might be able to help Yuming herself.

The next morning Clara and her mom take the note and photograph to the consulate and meet Susan Zhau who treats them curtly. When Clara arrives home she begins searching for flights to Beijing and at lunch makes the suggestion to her parents that they plan a trip to China. Her parent's shocked looks causes Clara to run out of the house and catch the bus they used to take to the hospital where Lola was treated for her cancer. There, Clara is recognized and comforted by two nurses who cared for Lola. They contact her parents who come to the hospital. After a discussion with Clara her parents decide to take a trip back to China in the hopes it will help her process Lola's death. But for Clara the trip is about trying to find  and saveYuming.

Meanwhile in alternating chapters, Yuming's story is told. It has been six weeks since Yuming placed the note into the pocket of a purse she was sewing. No help has been forthcoming so she knows she will have to find another way to escape the factory. Yuming was living in Yemo Village in Anhui Province with her grandmother Wai Po and grandfather Wai Gong. Her older brother Bolin left to work in the city and eventually her grandmother and then her grandfather passed away. Three months ago in early April, Yuming sat near the fountain in Molihua Park in Shanghai. She had come to the city to look for her older brother Bolin who last worked at a food stand in the park. However her efforts have proved fruitless. While resting on a park bench, Yuming is forcibly taken from the park by an older man and pushed onto a bus with two boys and driven out of the city to the north. The man, Mr. Zhang, tells them they are to work in his factory and he also tells them what to say if they are questioned. They arrive at a pale-pink factory where they are taken to a basement room and taught how to sew. Yuming sits next to a girl, Jing, who often helps her and who has been in the factory for years. In the three months that pass, Yuming does nothing but sew and sleep and often dreams about her life in her village.

On July 2, two new boys arrive - an older boy named Kai and his younger brother Li. Yuming overhears Kai and his brother talking about escaping. That night Li refuses to go sleep with the younger boys, so Yuming volunteers to keep him company in the barracks. In the morning she tells Kai she knows a way to escape and tells him she is coming with him and Li. Later that week the three of them make their escape. Li pretends he is sick and needs to get to the bathroom. Kai and Yuming help him to the bathroom. The bathroom of in the factory is a room without a ceiling and when Jing joins them the four help each other over the high walls and to freedom.

Once out of the factory, Yuming, Jing, Kai and Li race into the forest and continue to run until they reach the safety of a cave. That night they head out of the woods to the nearby village where they break into a store to find something to eat. Jing reveals that she has been at the factory for almost five years, and Yuming learns that Kai and his brother are from a village near Beijing. Kai tells the group that the plan is for them to make money at the tourist sights, in particular the Great Wall of China. With money, Yuming hopes to be able to return to her village.

From this point on the two storylines intersect frequently as Yuming and her friends struggle to survive and steal enough money to make it home, while Clara and her parents travel to Beijing and Shanghai. Clara believes the spirit of Lola is there to guide and encourage her in her quest to find Yuming's factory, while Yuming relies on the spirits of Wai Po and Wai Gong to help her in her quest to return home. 


Ami Polonsky has crafted a touching story that captures those tenuous and momentary connections that exist between people, sometimes known but mostly unknown in this life. These connections happen frequently throughout Threads, making it an captivating story.

Yuming places a note inside a purse hoping someone in America will find it and act. In a remarkable coincidence, her note is found by a young American girl with ties to China. But the coincidences do not stop there. When Clara and her family arrive at the Great Wall on July 7, Clara sees a city bus stop with a commotion going on in the back. "Suddenly, four of the windows open and, at the exact same moment, four kids jump out, one from each window. They have identical hair-cuts and are wearing brightly colored T-shirts that are way too big on them." The reader already knows from the previous chapter that Yuming, Jing, Kai and Li are "all wearing oversize, brightly colored T-shirts." Clara is unaware that she is seeing Yuming, and Yuming is unaware that Clara is the person who has seen her email and is actively trying to help her.

As Clara and her parents walk along the Great Wall, they "pass the four kids who escaped from the bus windows. They're jogging down the path, and I hope the bus driver is long gone by now."  As Clara walks along the Great Wall she is remembering when she last visited this famous site with Lola and how they played Rock, Paper, Scissors. Meanwhile Yuming, Jing, Kai and Li are jogging along the Great Wall path, searching for someone. As Yuming is keeping a careful lookout for Mr. Zhang, she notices "...people from many places: the wealthy Chinese families, the South Koreans laughing...the American girl in sun glasses and a baseball cap who seemed lost in thought, playing Scissors, Rock, Cloth discreetly with herself..." Unknown to Clara she has walked right past Yuming and Yuming does not know she has passed the girl who carries her note and picture in her pocket.

A third encounter happens in the city of Sunma during the kite festival. Clara looking for a way to get to the pink factory she has spotted from the gondola, sees "...a Chinese kid run to one of the cabs, say something to the driver, and shove a wad of money into his hand before jumping into the backseat." Unknown to Clara this is Yuming using the last of her money to take the very ill Li to the hospital. But this gives her the idea to use the cab to try to find the pink factory.

The final encounter between Clara and Yuming happens at the Molihua Fountain in Shanghai which is the one thing that ties Clara, Lola and Yuming together. Clara, upon learning that the factory has been located by Chinese officials feels that Yuming will probably be safe. After spreading Lola's ashes in the fountain Clara leaves Yuming's photograph on the fountain ledge securing it with a stone. As she walks through the narrow archway out of the park, Clara steps "...aside to let two girls in matching blue sweatshirts pass by. The way their arms are linked, they remind me of Lola and myself-- how we were, and how we could have been -- and I wonder if they're sisters. I smile at them. They both smile back at me."  Earlier, Yuming describes how she and Jing, waiting for their train to Shanghai, buy a package of food and "two matching blue sweatshirts." Unbeknownst to Clara and Yuming, they have met and even smiled at one another. At the end of the novel Yuming mentions looking at her framed photograph of herself and Wai Po and Wai Gong - the one she sent with her note, which Jing found at the fountain.

Although Clara set out on a journey to China to help and unknown girl, Yuming, it is this quest which helps Clara begin to heal from the loss of her sister Lola. Clara realizes that she undertook the quest of trying to save Yuming because she could not save Lola. When she learns that the Chinese authorities are now investigating the factory she is able to let go of Yuming and accept that she will likely be fine. Returning to the fountain where Lola was found as an abandoned baby, Clara releases Lola's ashes, bringing her closure and acceptance.

"The stone tiers of the fountain shine under a coat of dew. The drops are sparkling like glitter -- like tiny drops of life -- and I step closer to the edge. I stand in the spot where Lola was found almost fourteen years ago, and I think about all the layers of living that are always passing over and under one another like threads in a tapestry."

Although Clara could not directly see these layers and how they pass over and around and under one another, she has come to understand this because of the fountain which is the connection between herself and Yuming. It was where Lola was found and it was where Yuming's picture was taken. And unknown to both girls it is where their lives finally connect for one brief, happy moment.

Threads is a touching novel, well written that focuses on a young girl's struggle to recover from the loss of her dearly loved sister. Polonsky's characters are two brave, resilient girls whose lives briefly touch and are never the same again. Ami Polonsky writes in her Author's Note, "Sometimes I lie in bed at night and think about the fact that my life is, in one way or another, connected to every single other life on the planet. It's as though there are invisible threads that bind us all, and occasionally, when I envision these invisible threads, they feel charged with unseen energy. Every now and then, like in the cases of the man in the factory and the woman in New York, and Clara and Yuming, an invisible thread becomes exposed. The energy creates tangible, visible sparks and, from these sparks, come stories."

Book Details:

Threads by Ami Polonsky
New York: Disney Hyperion     2016
pp. 240

No comments: