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Fictional Immigrants

August 3, 2010 by Reader's Connection

The Rhythm of Success: How an Immigrant Produced His Own American DreamFlanner House Library´s Kathleen Rivenburg has inspired me with this week´s Staff Recommends review. She reviews Emilio Estefan’s book The Rhythm of Success: How an Immigrant Produced His Own American Dream, and has set me to reading a trio of recent novels about immigrants.



The Wives of Henry Oades

Johanna Moran’s first novel The Wives of Henry Oades is a rip-snorter. Henry and his family migrate from England to New Zealand in 1890. They are engulfed by tragedy,  and there’s more migration and, yes, another wife; but Henry isn’t an intentional bigamist.

Moran handles the clash of cultures masterfully–and  the Oadeses have to deal with a remarkable variety of hostile cultures.

Point of interest: The predicament in which these wonderfully drawn characters find themselves is said to have an historical basis, but one of them has an appointment with a fictional dentist. McTeague, an unlicensed giant with a shock of blond hair, who learned everything he knew from a travelling charlatan, is borrowed from Frank Norris’s novel McTeague: A Story of San Francisco.   




Allen Brennert’s Honolulu begins in Korea. Regret, who was given that name because she was a girl, longs to escape from her repressive existence and in 1914 ships off to Hawaii as a mail-order bride.

Things tend to go badly for fictional migrants, at least for a while, so you can guess what sort of fellow Regret’s husband turns out to be. The story spans several decades, though, and provides a wonderful segment of Hawaiian history, populated in part by migrants from a number of nations, who bring their own visions with them and don’t always melt together all that well.

As a reader, you’ll be immersed in the Massie affair, a real-life murder trial in which Clarence Darrow played a shameful part; and you’ll be present at the invention of Hawaiian shirts as we know them; and you’ll meet the real Charlie Chan. 


NikolskiI wanted to read another serious novel about immigration, but instead I found myself reading Nikolski which is about two young Canadians who wander around a lot in pursuit of . . . um . . . and one guy who has worked in a used bookstore forever. The paperback is published by Shambala Press, a firm best known for mystical texts from various traditions, and after a few chapters you’ll understand what they saw in Nicolas Dickner’s novel.

If you want a novel that makes a real attempt to capture the experience of immigrantion, you’re better off with Honolulu or The Wives of Henry Oades. But if your compass points toward something light-hearted, with pirate ancestors and eccentrically interrelated journeys, try Nikolski. If nothing else, you’ll encounter passages like this, written by the bookstore guy:

Most people have clearly defined opinions on the subject of free will: Fate (no matter what you call it) either exists or does not exist. There can be no approximations, no in-betweens. I find this hypothesis reductive. In my view, fate is like intelligence,  or beauty, or type z+ lymphocytes–some individuals have a greater supply than others. I, for one, suffer from a deficiency; I am a clerk in a bookstore whose life is devoid of complications or a storyline of its own. My life is governed by the attraction of books. The weak magnetic field of my fate is distorted by those thousands of fates more powerful and more interesting than my own.

Happy trails.


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