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Book review: Daughters and the stories they carry

Jamie Ford’s new novel is part historical fiction, part feminist fiction, part science fiction and totally captivating.

“The Many Daughters of Afong Moy” grabs the reader’s attention from the beginning and holds it through generations of a mythical family that jumps to life on these pages.

It follows the tale of a real woman, Afong Moy, the first recognized Chinese woman immigrant to America. Although not much is known about her, Ford imagines a family journey through the lens of recent psychological studies that suggest trauma can be passed between generations. It’s called epigenetics and Ford uses the developing research to drive the story.

Not much is really known about what happened to Afong after she was brought to America by white traders and then exhibited as a sideshow attraction to sell wares from the Far East. With her bound feet and exotic beauty, she was an early brand ambassador and influencer, although not in the glamorous way currently portrayed on social media. She was abused by her handlers and, after a brief sensation as a curiosity who made headlines across the nation, disappeared, forgotten to history.

Using the theory of shared generational trauma, however, Ford brings her back to life and fills in blanks about what could have happened to the women who followed her.

Ford’s intense research into the science behind the plot lends a strong credibility to the story and sweeps the reader away into the world of Afong and her possible female progeny.

Based on real-life studies at Emory University, New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital and other venerable institutions, researchers have shown that trauma of past generations could be passed along, for example, in families of Holocaust survivors and Native Americans. It’s been themes in other books reviewed in these pages, such as “Red Paint,” the memoir by Sasha taqwšeblu LaPointe.

Ford then weaves this topic with the beliefs of Buddhism and karma, which partner perfectly in driving this fascinating storyline.

He explores all of that through Afong’s story and what might have happened to her descendants: a girl who escapes the Barbary Plague in San Francisco’s Chinatown at the turn of the 20th century, a brilliant British boarding school student in the 1920s, a World War II nurse, the developer of a dating app, the future poet laureate of Washington, and her daughter.

Throughout, Ford weaves the details of their lives together, not just through their tribulations but even through the music they listen to and the poetry they unintentionally pass along to one another.

Nature rarely cooperates, as Ford imagines a future 20 years away, where the rains of Seattle churn into an annual typhoon season that floods streets and destroys buildings the way hurricanes are ravaging the South. Spokane contends with a contingency of white nationalists and fire season.

After a particularly destructive storm in 2043, people in the Seattle subway show special kindness, patience, and charity to one another. “Even the Amazon workers looked happy,” Ford writes. The ancillary characters are fully formed, even when most of them are causing pain.

It’s easy to fall in love with Afong Moy and all her daughters. Despite the years that pass, they never seem to rise above the struggles of just being a woman. Even when they succeed, they are one step away from a man stepping in to rob them of the success they may attain, or dignity they hope to hold close.

Stories of pandemics, failures of immigration policies, misogyny, racism and the fickle tech industry all come together to create a story of the past and future clearly relevant with our present.

This is an emotional ride that keeps you flipping pages to find out what will happen to these strong, loving women working so hard to overcome the trauma that haunts and burdens them.

Because no matter what’s thrown at them, they manage to maintain hope.

And this really is a book about hope.

Sometimes, it’s all we have left.

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