Angelfish by Laurence Yep
Putnam’s Sons, 2001.
hardcover, 216 pages.
Laurence Yep’s The Star Maker is on my concenter list and the Library has yet to get it, but I have confidence they will, they have several of his books. I checked out Angelfish on a whim while hanging out at the end of the alphabet in Juvenile Fiction.
Just when things were going so well, Robin accidentally breaks Mr. Tsow’s fish store window. Going to her parents risks grounding, and then she would miss the ballet recital and her big role as Beauty in an abbreviated Beauty & the Beast. Mr. Tsow agrees that she can work off the insurance premium with a fairly flexible schedule by doing chores about the store–not that he is all that gracious about having her around. His insults are incredibly harsh; calling Robin a half-person, because she’s only half-Chinese, among other things.
Challenged by Tsow’s belief that she is lazy and irresponsible Robin sticks around. She soon comes to see him as the Beast like from the play and is convinced he is hiding some deep hurt that has created such a monstrous shell. With her grandmother’s help, she seeks to unravel the clues of his past.
The young teen-aged* Robin would seem a prime target for having an unsavory boyfriend who needs saving, mama! but for the character of Mr. Tsow. His cryptic statements, his unrepentant bigotry and certainty is intriguing; and he isn’t easily dismissed as not worth her trouble. That Robin’s maternal grandmother has come to America and provokes a desire in Robin to learn about her Chinese heritage is another. Part of understanding where Mr. Tsow is coming from is to understand his past. The grandmother would help Robin navigate these waters, providing a story of her own and physical evidence that old wounds still haunt the present.
Angelfish is Juvenile Fiction and has its audience in mind. The prose are not looking for the literateur, just clean straightforward storytelling. I cannot guess on the transparency in some of the plot, but I am guessing that most Young Readers will figure out pretty early on that when the limping Mr. Tsow talks about his friend the dancer, he is actually speaking about himself. Robin stays one step denser and another step clumsier to allow for revelation, or does the author have a surprise in mind? Near the end of the jacket copy, it reads, “To their horror, they discover that he was a victim of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.” When the Chinese Cultural Revolution is mentioned for the first time, Robin doesn’t truly understand the implications, and I am guessing most readers won’t either. It is to their’s and the Reader’s horror when you discover Mr. Tsow’s victimization.
Robin is driven by curiosity at first, but she has a tender heart and great compassion for Mr. Tsow. By then we already known that she is a very loving individual. She is brave and determined, very focused on her craft; but still very much a growing up girl navigating the world. She is a strong female protagonist of not the most usual sort; in ways that Belle is. Laurence does a beautiful job with his use of Beauty and the Beast. And then there is his lovely metaphoric use of the Angelfish.
Set in San Francisco, Yep takes around the Richmond neighborhood and the Chinese-American cultural landscape. The feel is less educational as much as incidentally informational. You learn as Robin learns, of course, she is still discovering her heritage and how to negotiate her double culture. Two halves, a hybrid, Robin has to deal with bigotry and self-acceptance; with antiquated notions and contemporary ignorance.
For all the drama, there is humor. Robin’s ballet partner Thomas is comedic, as well as the caricatures of Auntie Ruby, and even Madame to some extent. Yep keeps a lighthearted and determinedly optimistic tone to off-set the dark intrigue surrounding Mr. Tsow; buoying the story in the kindness of the human heart and the hope of new beginnings, and families who fight to save their own.
I had thought to at least make it half-way before bed last night and ended up forcing myself to put the book down only a few chapters from the end for the sake of an early morning–Tsow was that compelling. 216 pages is a quick read and the writing isn’t hard, but the emotional content may be—Yep employs the perfect amount of gravity. I would recommend Angelfish to any Juvenile Fiction audience member, especially those interested in a not wholly-white protagonist, a diverse cast, and in cultural information and revelation. Yep is adept in writing about the world of Ballet, so do hand this to your resident ballerina as well. [was gratified to find those few years of N’s ballet lessons came in handy.]
*the novel never gives her an age, but I am guessing since she is en pointe and in school and able to work w/out question she is 15/16-ish; not that I think it matters all that much.