Tue. August 7
Hope Away from Home
“We had such high hopes when Father marched off to fight the demons.”
Despite its opening line, Laurence Yep’s 1984 novel The Serpent’s Children is a realistic novel, not fantasy. And that opening incorporates all three of the deepest themes of this powerful, suspenseful tale.
First there is this matter of the “demons.” The book is set in nineteenth-century China, and the “demons” are white people, specifically the British, fighting a war to open China to the opium trade. Yep started writing the series which begins with The Serpent’s Children in order to gain a deeper understanding of his own roots, by exploring the way one fictional Chinese family’s history intertwined with the history of America. That impulse to understand a worldview which shaped him, but which he does not live within today, gives the novel its empathy and its distinctive mindset.
Then there’s the word “hope,” and the sad, bitter hint that hope will be disappointed. The Serpent’s Children is a startlingly dark book. Cassia eats weeds to keep from starving, and she is almost sold as a slave; her friend Peony is sold to a brothel. Cassia and her family work terribly hard, yet seem to fall further and further behind. Months of work can be wiped out in an afternoon by a heavy rainstorm.
The family only manages to survive because of a huge change: Cassia’s brother Foxfire sails for America to make his fortune on the “Golden Mountain” of California. Even when your hopes are fulfilled, the book suggests, they’re often harder hopes than the ones you had at first.
The final theme of the book is family. Cassia begins the book feeling contempt and jealousy toward her “crybaby,” much-indulged younger brother. She has to look at him and see his familiar features to remember that he, too, is a child of her beloved mother.
The Serpent’s Children is well aware of the dangers posed by too much emphasis on the blood tie. Cassia’s friend Aster is an outsider because she comes from a group called the “Strangers,” displaced families who settled in the area centuries ago. And the Young family’s only hope turns out to be Foxfire’s journey to America: the disowned son, far from the land of his birth.
I’ve written before that children in today’s disrupted family structures often need both a sense that they can be resilient and overcome difficulties, and an acknowledgment that the difficulties their family situation creates are real. They often long for a less-complicated family, yearn for the father who is absent, struggle with how they relate to stepfamilies, or wish they knew if they had half-siblings. At the same time they need a sense of acceptance, a sense that their losses haven’t crippled them. The Serpent’s Children provides both sides of this story. Family is central to Cassia’s story—and yet that story is ultimately a tale of a disrupted family, in which hope, survival, and forgiveness require acceptance of the disruption.
The Serpent’s Children is a page-turner, filled with casually lush prose. Foxfire describes the California hills: “They are already a golden, tawny color like a fur I saw once. It is as if the grass had been stretched over supple muscle. When the wind passes over the hillsides, it is as if an invisible gigantic hand were stroking the shoulders of the land to try to soothe it.”
This is the first of Yep’s “Golden Mountain” tales I’ve read. They follow the Young family up through 1995. I can’t wait to find out what happens next.
Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington, DC. She blogs at Patheos.com. She has written for Commonweal, USA Today, and the Weekly Standard, among other publications.