BONE is a spare novel which explores the emptiness left by the apparent suicide of Ona, the middle of three daughters in a Chinese American family. This first person story is told by the oldest daughter, Leila, a schoolteacher trying to accept not only Ona’s death but also an older, deeper emptiness which has everything to do with living with immigrant parents who sacrificed their own generation to build a bridge to the future.

Leila’s mother, Mah, is a seamstress in a sweatshop. She married Leila’s stepfather, Leon Leong, primarily for his green card. Leon is a merchant sailor who ships out periodically, frequently on a moment’s notice, to take menial labor positions on merchant vessels. Their youngest daughter, Nina, escaped from San Francisco to New York City. Leila, the oldest daughter, has made her boyfriend, Mason, her own means of escape. Mason is a car mechanic who specializes in repairing expensive cars, and whose life has a wilder, less predictable cast than Leila’s. Their relationship is both unpredictable and surprisingly stable. The novel begins with Leila trying to break the news to Leon and Mah that she and Mason got married while vacationing in New York; the question of what direction this marriage will go remains open at the end.

The novel is presented as a meditation circling around the insoluble question of why Ona would have killed herself. Possibly it was an impulsive need to escape the severe world she’d grown up in; possibly it was nothing more than a drug-related accident. Leila never finds an answer, but the search does lead her closer to understanding Mah and Leon, and the love which was only one of the factors separating and uniting them over the years.

The loss of their daughter forces the parents to face the many sacrifices and losses they have each endured over the years. Like the question of “Why?” the question of whether it was all worth it cannot be answered. What the novel can do, however, is value Mah and Leon’s courage and endurance, qualities which the next generation, Leila and Mason, will surely need as well.


Belles Lettres. VIII, Spring, 1993, p.21.

Cheng, Lucie, et al. Linking Our Lives: Chinese American Women of Los Angeles. Los Angeles: Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, 1984. The authors discuss problems of Chinese women as they become Americanized in Southern California. The women of the Leong family, including the mother and three daughters, confront these obstacles.

Chicago Tribune. February 25, 1993, V, p.3.

Hunnewell, Susannah. “When the Old Begin to Die.” The New York Times Book Review (February 7, 1993): 9. This article describes the sweatshops where Ng grew up in Chinatown, San Francisco, California, and where many older people worked hard to give their grandchildren a better life. Ng’s novel pays tribute to the...

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