________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 2 . . . . September 12, 2008

cover Learning to Fly. (Orca Soundings).

Paul Yee.
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2008.
108 pp., pbk. & hc., $9.95 (pbk.),
$16.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-55143-953-2 (pbk.),
ISBN 978-1-55143-955-6 (hc.).

Grades 7 and up / Ages 12 and up.

Review by Huai-Yang Lim.

** /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.

excerpt:

Pinhead looks at me. “You better get lost. You don’t want to be seen with us. The cops will grab you next.”

“Maybe I should go.” I try not to sound too eager.

“Don’t worry,” Chief says. “You’re new here, right? And you’re from China. The cops won’t bother you. They’re afraid they’ll be called racist.”

“Can you give me some stuff?” I ask Pinhead.

“Are you kidding? I just flushed everything I had down the toilet!”

“There’s nothing to worry about.” Chief laughs.

I’m not so sure. Cops have power, and they like to use it. And the people of this law-and-order town want to know their police are strong and fearless.

 

The quantity of young adult and teen literature on immigrant experiences is growing, as seen by the proliferation of works that portray the experiences of immigrants in North America who have come from Asia as well as other continents such as Africa and South America. Paul Yee is one such writer whose body of work represents a significant contribution to the Chinese Canadian literary field. As a Chinese Canadian writer of literature for young people, Paul Yee has addressed a variety of themes in his work. Besides setting his stories in historical settings such as the Depression era in Breakaway, the nineteenth century in Ghost Train, and the early twentieth century in The Bone Collector’s Son, Yee also draws upon the contemporary context in Teach Me to Fly, Skyfighter as well as the recent What Happened This Summer. Common to all of Yee’s works is his sensitive portrayal of Chinese Canadians’ social and psychological struggles in relation to the community in which they live. He does not provide a negative and passive reflection of Chinese Canadians who are simply victimized by the context in which they live. Instead, he suggests the possibility of empowerment and hope for his stories’ characters.

      Published as part of the “Orca Soundings” series, Yee’s novel Learning to Fly provides a sensitive portrayal of a young immigrant boy and his attempts to fit into the life of a small community named Milson. Despite the stylistic and thematic guidelines that appear to underpin novels written in the “Orca Soundings” series, Yee does succeed, to an extent, in exploring serious issues that face immigrants and people of colour today, but which readers can also identify with on a broader level. Struggles with one’s self-identity, prejudice, and familial conflict are issues with which all readers can identify, regardless of their individual backgrounds.

      Yee’s novel takes place in contemporary Canada and focuses on a young Chinese protagonist named Jason who feels out of place in a small town that is predominantly white and who yearns to return home to China. The psychological tension and social isolation that Jason experiences arise from not only his self-consciousness of his visible skin colour and his family’s cultural differences in relation to the white population, but also his longing for the comfort of China. He considers China to be a place that is more like “home” than Canada because of its cultural familiarity as well as his sense of belonging among his peers. Indeed, Yee succeeds in portraying Jason’s struggles with conflicting feelings. On the one hand, Jason struggles with his own feelings of inadequacy and displacement as well as his resentment towards his mother for moving them to a small Canadian town. He feels isolated and different from the rest of the community, with his mother’s deli as a further, painful reminder of his lower class status On the other hand, he wants to become “Canadianized” and middle-class like the other townspeople. As a result, he tries to fit in with his peers, even at the expense of getting into trouble with the police.

      Through characters such as Jason and an Aboriginal boy nicknamed Chief, Yee suggests how the problems that immigrants and people of colour face are not just due to their own flaws, but also because of the marginalization and discrimination that they experience in their daily lives. Like Jason, the novel’s other characters come from specific economic and cultural circumstances that exacerbate their isolation from the mainstream community and, in turn, contribute to questionable behaviours such as their use of marijuana. This is not to suggest that the use of marijuana is condoned in this story, but rather that this behaviour is depicted as a coping mechanism that offers Jason a momentary sense of escape from his daily life.

      Yee addresses racial discrimination through the interaction and thoughts of white and non-white characters, showing how prejudice can operate on a variety of levels. Readers will get a clear sense of the racism that Jason and Chief encounter from their peers, adults, and authority figures. The novel’s portrayal of the police is particularly powerful because of its blunt treatment of this sensitive subject matter. Certainly, the young characters’ encounters with the police create tension and move the plot along, but Yee also uses these moments to critique the practices and attitudes that guide the police’s treatment of minorities and approach towards crime. He criticizes the police’s overzealous desire to arrest people for crimes, rather than taking a more proactive approach that recognizes and addresses the circumstances that may lead young people to commit crime. Indeed, as his novel illustrates, it is far easier to arrest someone for drug possession than to deal with the causes that may surround these activities.

      Yee’s novel further illustrates that racial prejudices can operate in different ways. While white people may have negative views of First Nations people, the reverse is also true. As illustrated by Chief, he has the cynical view that all white people are out to take advantage of the native population, although this view is, understandably, shaped by the historical and cultural heritage out of which he comes. Similarly, Yee shows through his portrayal of Aunt Mei how Chinese people can also harbour prejudices towards First Nations people while they, themselves, are targets of similar prejudices from the white population.

      This novel’s character development is expressed through the characters’ actions, dialogue, and, to a lesser extent, the protagonist’s thoughts. However, these portrayals can become potentially stereotypical because readers may construe Jason’s mother as the angry and thrifty Chinese woman who is victimized by her depressed economic and social circumstances. As with other books that deal with characters of Asian background, readers should be aware of the historical and cultural context in order to better understand and appreciate the characters that Yee portrays. Indeed, the anger of Jason’s mother, as well as her expectations that her son should take care of her, has to be understood with this cultural context in mind.

      As noted on the official website for Orca Book Publishers, the “Orca Soundings” series comprises “short high-interest novels with contemporary themes, written expressly for teens reading below grade level,” and “open endings [that] lead to discussion and further exploration.” In this context, Yee’s book does fulfill the mandate of the series and, in the process, tells a story with interesting characters and a narrative that sustains readers’ attention. One noteworthy point about the story is how it portrays the possibility of intercultural and interracial friendships. In particular, its portrayal of the developing friendship between Chief and Jason is unusual because there are not many stories for young people that portray friendships between an aboriginal and Chinese person.

      Yet, the writing guidelines that direct this series can inadvertently limit the extent to which authors can develop a compelling narrative that explores and resolves complex issues in a satisfactory way. Due to the readership that this series aims to attract, each book uses simpler vocabulary and is also relatively short in length compared to other teen novels. Yee’s book deals with a number of thought-provoking issues that have been mentioned above already, but it is perhaps too ambitious for the nature of this series. In a novel of this length, it is difficult to deal in-depth with issues such as race relations and cultural tensions. These issues are raised through the characters’ actions and dialogue, but they are not explored in a nuanced or complex manner. If this novel were not part of the “Orca Soundings” series, it could easily have been a longer, but more developed and compelling, narrative.

      An example of this is the novel’s plot development. As a whole, this book is a quick read that will attract reluctant readers, but the quality of the story’s development is not reflective of Yee’s best work. His other novels provide a more satisfying sense of character development and plot resolution, without relying on what some readers may regard as an overly dramatic life-or-death climax that quickly resolves within a few paragraphs. In relation to this, certain plot threads such as Jason’s relationship with his father and classmate Celine are only addressed in passing. Scenes of conflict appear to flash up and dissipate quickly, rather than build up with a lingering, progressive effect. For example, the tensions between Jason and his mother crop up several times in the novel, but one never gets the sense that they are resolved. The story’s dramatic and open-ended conclusion does not adequately resolve the tensions that exist between Jason and his mother. Similarly, the death of a minor character late in the novel is rather sudden. Perhaps Yee intended to create this effect and to suggest that things sometimes happen unexpectedly or problems between people can be ongoing. In both cases, however, there could be more development or lead-up to the event, followed by a more satisfying resolution.

      Like its plot, the novel’s characterization could have a more sustained development, particularly with respect to Jason’s and Chief’s relationship. It seems that they become friends by virtue of their mutual identification with each other’s circumstances, but their relationship is portrayed through scenes that tend to oscillate between moments of friendliness and hostility without giving a progressive sense of buildup from one scene to the next. As a result, the nature of this friendship and its development is unclear. Similarly, it would have been beneficial for Yee to develop his story’s secondary characters, such as Jason's father and Celine, more fully so that they contribute more effectively to the racial and cultural issues that his novel explores.

      The problems mentioned above can, in part, be attributed to the limitations of the series’ writing guidelines. Nevertheless, this book would still be a useful addition to school and public library collections because of the series’s target readership. While maintaining young readers’ interest in the plot, Yee’s novel will also help them to develop and gain confidence in their reading skills. In the classroom, teachers can use this text to provoke discussion about problems that people from other backgrounds face in Canadian society. However, in the context of Paul Yee’s other work, more proficient readers should read his other novels for a more fulfilling reading experience.

      For more information about Paul Yee, readers can visit his official website.

Recommended with reservations.

Huai-Yang Lim has completed a degree in Library and Information Studies at the University of Alberta and currently works as a research specialist. He enjoys reading, reviewing, and writing children’s literature in his spare time.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.
 

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