Homebase Summary

Homebase was the first novel by Shawn Hsu Wong (born 1949), a Chinese-American author who taught for many years at the University of Washington. It was originally published in 1979 and won several awards. Its setting is contemporary (i.e., the period in which it was written).

Download Homebase Study Guide

Subscribe Now

The protagonist of the novel is Rainsford Chan, a Chinese-American teenager. He has suffered two major losses in his life: the death of his father, which occurred when he was seven, and the death of his mother when he is fifteen (the "present" of the novel). After Rainsford is orphaned, he moves in with his aunt and uncle, who care for him and are sympathetic figures in the narrative.

The five chapters of the novel are present through the viewpoint of Rainsford as he grapples with the loss of his parents, his identity as a Chinese-American, and his family heritage. In the novel, Rainsford attempts to imagine the lives of his ancestors, and in the final chapter, in his interactions with his grandfather, Rainsford comes to an understanding of his identity and heritage.

Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Homebase is a novel about fifteen-year-old Rainsford Chan, a fourth-generation Chinese American struggling to establish his identity both as a person and as an American. The central events of his life, and the ones with which the narrative is most concerned, are the deaths of his father (when Rainsford is seven years old) and of his mother (when he is fifteen).

The novel is divided into five chapters, each of which has a generous number of what might be called “speculative flashbacks.” Rainsford never knew his grandfather or great-grandfather, and he knew his father only slightly before his death. These “speculative flashbacks,” which actually make up most of the work, are founded both in reality and in imagination; Rainsford does have some factual information about his grandfather and great-grandfather in the form of letters, documents, and a few family stories and legends that have come down to him. He enlarges upon these to discover and define meaning for his own existence.

Wong begins the novel by giving the basic facts of Rainsford’s present circumstances and family history. The reader learns immediately of several important events in the young narrator’s life: Rainsford is fifteen years old, and both of his parents are dead. The narrator is pursuing the lives of his family members, especially those of his grandfather and great-grandfather. He tells us that he cannot speak Chinese, but he remembers his own father teaching him “Home on the Range,” buying him Superman T-shirts, and taking him to see World War II films. Although his grandfather and great-grandfather are never given names, they become central to the story, and it is through them and through Rainsford’s imagined history of their lives that he comes to terms with his own identity. Much of the opening section is a history, mostly contrived by Rainsford, of his great-grandfather’s life while helping to build railroads in Nevada and Wyoming.

In the second chapter, Rainsford writes a letter to his father, who has been dead some eight years. The letter is an attempt by the young teenager to establish a relation with someone not present so that he can go on with his life as a complete individual, with a heritage and self-understanding. The other major event of this chapter is Rainsford’s recollection of his father’s death; a poignant story is told of the young boy ironing his father’s shirts on the night his mother comes home to report his father’s death. Readers also learn that two years after his father’s death, his mother had taken a lover in order to try to escape some of her own pain from the loss; the attempt is not successful, but it has no negative effects on Rainsford himself.

Rainsford’s mother dies when he is fifteen, and the youth goes to live with his uncle, a medical doctor, and his aunt, who runs a children’s store. It is important in the third chapter that his relatives treat him well, basically...

(The entire section is 1,443 words.)