In writing her debut novel, The Leavers, Lisa Ko wanted to shed light on the plight of thousands of U.S.-born children separated from their families and placed in protective services because of immigration enforcement. With little or no attempt at reuniting them with their biological families, many are kept in foster homes or adopted out to well-meaning parents. Ko’s young protagonist, Deming Guo, or Daniel Wilkinson as he is renamed, is one such child.
Eleven-year-old Deming is living in the Bronx with his mother, Polly, an undocumented Chinese immigrant working at a nail salon. They share an apartment with her boyfriend, Leon, along with his sister and nephew, a home situation that is not perfect but one that does provide love and protection. But then Polly disappears without a trace.
After unsuccessfully trying to find Polly’s whereabouts, Leon is distraught and returns to China, leaving Deming with his sister, who soon finds it too difficult to care for him along with her own young son and turns Deming over to foster care. From there he is taken in by a young white couple, relocated to a small college town, and given a name that, it is assumed, will help him fit in.
The novel begins the day before his mother disappears, and then switches back and forth between Deming as a young boy and Daniel as a troubled young adult battling gambling addiction and trying to find acceptance and satisfaction playing guitar in a band. Through him, a picture is formed of a childhood spent with a mother that is loving but at times distant and restless. The reader also learns about the years he spent living with his grandfather in a small village in China, and later, with his adoptive parents, who are well-intentioned but inadequate stand-ins for his real family.
The story is also told through Polly in a first person account that unfolds like a long letter to her son. She explains how she ended up in the New York, pregnant and trapped by debt in low-paying, sweat shop jobs, faced with the only option of sending her one-year-old son to live in China for five years until she can find a better situation for them. She also tries to explain, as best she can, why she completely vanished.
This is a novel about searching. It is about a boy searching for his mother, for his identity, and a place in a world that he does not seem to belong. It is about a young woman searching for something beyond the confines of her small village, and then searching for happiness in a new life that is full of complications and roadblocks. And then ultimately, it is about her search for forgiveness and acceptance.
The Leavers won the 2016 PEN/Bellweather Prize which recognizes fiction addressing social issues of importance.
Katherine Arends is the Branch Manager at the Mebane Public Library and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.