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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 509

The Leavers by Lisa Ko, published in 2017, is a novel about the life of a young Chinese American boy named Deming Guo (later Daniel Wilkinson). Deming's mother, Peilan, flees China when she is pregnant with Deming, as she does not want to be pressured to marry Deming's father. Peilan believes that she might either miscarry or be able to procure an abortion once she arrives in the United States, only to discover that an abortion cannot be performed on someone who is seven months pregnant. After Peilan gives birth to Deming, she sends Deming back to China to live with her father until she can properly care for her son. Once Peilan—now known by her American name, Polly—has saved enough money and is settled enough to support Deming, he is sent back to the US, where the two are reunited. Polly and Deming live in the Bronx with Polly's boyfriend, Leon, and Leon's young son, Michael, who is about the same age as Deming. Deming and Michael go to school, and Leon and Polly (who is undocumented) both work very long days. It is a difficult life, but the four members of the household are relatively content with the situation.

Everything seems to be going well until Polly disappears without a trace one day when Deming is eleven years old. Since Polly had previously spoken of moving to Florida, Deming wonders if perhaps Polly finally just decided to move there without telling anyone, but he cannot believe that she would leave without at least notifying him after the fact. When Deming asks Leon for more information, Leon simply states that Polly is "visiting friends." Deming is concerned that his mother has met with foul play, but the possibility that her troubles are tied to her immigration status never enters Deming's mind. The situation becomes even more complex once Leon goes missing, too.

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With no parents left to look after him, Deming ultimately ends up being fostered by a couple in upstate New York: Kay and Peter. Kay and Peter, who are kind and well-meaning, decide to rechristen Deming as Daniel Wilkinson. They encourage Daniel to work hard in school. We read of Daniel's difficulty in adjusting to his new life and family and how out of place he feels as the only Asian person in an all-white upstate enclave.

Later, after having lost track of him years earlier, Daniel unexpectedly receives word from Michael. Daniel also eventually returns to China in an attempt to learn more about his mother and his own family's history, and he has to come to terms with the fact that his mother is not particularly maternal. He learns that Polly even tried to abandon him as a baby in New York but that she couldn't go through with it. It's not that Polly doesn't care for her son, but she has always had her own dreams, and being a mother was not part of those dreams. Still, mother and son are eventually reunited in China and find a measure of peace together.

Summary

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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1907

Author: Lisa Ko (b. 1975)

Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (Chapel Hill, NC). 352 pp.

Type of work: Novel

Time: 1990s and present day

Locales: New York; Fujian, China

Lisa Ko’s debut novel, The Leavers, is a coming-of-age story that explores identity, immigration, and motherhood.

Principal characters

Deming Guo, a.k.a. Daniel Wilkinson,the novel’s young, Chinese American protagonist

The Leavers

Courtesy of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

Lisa Ko

Courtesy of Bartosz Potocki

Polly Guo, a.k.a. Guo Peilan, his mother, who disappears when he is eleven years old

Leon, his mother’s fiancé

Vivian, Leon’s sister

Michael, his childhood best friend, Vivian’s son

Peter Wilkinson, his adoptive father

Kathryn S. “Kay” Wilkinson, his adoptive mother

Roland Fuentes, his friend

Angel Hennings, his friend, a fellow transracial adoptee

Lisa Ko’s debut novel, The Leavers, follows the story of a young boy named Deming Guo as he navigates the various threads of his identity. Jumping around in time, Ko’s narrative begins when Deming is eleven years old. He lives in the Bronx with his mother, Polly, a Chinese immigrant from Fuzhou. The two share a cramped apartment with Leon, Polly’s fiancé; Leon’s sister, Vivian; and Vivian’s young son, Michael. Their lives are precarious and difficult—Polly works at a nail salon and Leon butchers pigs and cows at an industrial slaughterhouse in the Bronx—but ultimately happy. Why then, the day after Polly floats the idea of moving the family to Florida to pursue a waitressing job, does she disappear without a trace? This question and the painful fallout of Polly’s disappearance animate Ko’s novel about identity, immigration, and motherhood. The Leavers is divided into four parts, alternately narrated by Deming and Polly. Ko’s novel is populated by doppelgangers; glimpses of identities associated with roads not taken. Months after Polly disappears, Deming becomes Daniel Wilkinson, the adoptee of a well-meaning, wealthy white couple in upstate New York. Twists of fate are swift for Deming and his mother, whose lives, as he comes to learn, are shaped by forces beyond their control.

The Leavers is Ko’s first novel. It won the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, given by novelist Barbara Kingsolver for a novel that deals with social justice and the effect of culture and politics on relationships, and was a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award for fiction. Ko began writing the book in 2009, after reading a New York Times article about a woman named Xiu Ping Jiang. Jiang, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, was arrested while traveling from New York to Florida to start a new job. She was detained by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for a year and a half. Jiang, who spent much of her imprisonment in solitary confinement, was also forcibly separated from her son, who was detained by ICE, placed in the foster care system, and adopted by another family, in Canada. Ko incorporates aspects of Jiang’s story—which is not singular among other stories involving immigration and ICE—in crafting the story of Polly Guo. While Deming is the protagonist of Ko’s tale, Polly is its heart. Polly, or Peilan, grows up in Minjiang, a small village outside of Fuzhou, in the province of Fujian, China. Her father is a fisherman; her mother has died. Peilan is expected to marry one of her neighbors when she comes of age but yearns to be free of her poor, rural life. She leaves home to work in a factory in Fuzhou as a teenager but becomes pregnant. Hamstrung by China’s birth policies, Polly takes out a fifty-thousand-dollar loan to come to the United States as an undocumented immigrant.

In New York, Polly lives in a tiny apartment in Chinatown with a handful of other women. She gives birth to Deming, taking out more loans to care for him. Polly is surprised by the intense love she feels for her son. Her early struggles to care for Deming while also paying down her astronomic debt are stirring. She brings him to the sweatshop where she works fourteen-hour shifts, setting him in a small open box at her feet. Trying to feed him, she flubs a hem and is sent home without pay. In a moment of desperation, Polly almost abandons Deming at the waterfront in Manhattan. She eventually decides to send him back to her father in Minjiang until she can pay down her debt and afford to care for a child. Ironically, she must take out more loans to facilitate this arrangement. Five years later, Polly is still chipping away at her debt, sending money home when she can, when her father unexpectedly dies. Polly takes out more loans to bring Deming back to New York. She gets a job at a nail salon, taking out yet more loans to afford to “apprentice” there before receiving pay, and eventually meets, falls in love with, and moves in with Leon. Polly’s life, like the lives of the immigrant women who inspired her story, is characterized by the gut-wrenching choices she must make to survive. Ko does an admirable job of rendering Polly as a full and complicated person. She is practical, but also charmingly profane. For years afterward, Deming will remember her sharp, barking laugh. Polly also has her own dreams and ambitions; she refuses to be beaten by the systems that seek to oppress her, not just for Deming, but for herself.

When the reader first meets Deming, five years have passed since he returned to the United States from Minjiang, and he has learned to trust and rely on his mother. Still, he is initially horrified at the prospect of moving to Florida. Michael, Vivian’s young son, is like a brother to Deming, and he worries about what will happen if Michael and his mother decide to stay in the city. Deming eventually comes around to the idea but never gets to express his change of heart. His mother disappears without a trace the next day. At first, Deming believes she has gone to Florida without him, but as the weeks go by, this conclusion seems less and less likely. He wonders why she has not called, even just to check up on him. Not long after that, Leon disappears, and Vivian, unable to care for two children alone, places Deming with a foster family. With disorienting speed, Deming finds himself in foster care, with a white couple named Peter and Kay Wilkinson. Peter and Kay live in a fictional small college town in upstate New York called Ridgeborough. Both are professors and published authors and welcome Deming into their life of relative affluence. They shower Deming with love, but insist that he formally change his name to Daniel Wilkinson. Daniel, they assure him, is far easier to pronounce than Deming. Ko manages to portray Peter and Kay as both loving and willfully ignorant about Deming’s cultural background. Even their attempts to reach out—Deming suffers through Kay’s conversations in mangled Mandarin and her Chinese cooking—reek of condescension. Deming comes to understand their motivations. Late in the book, Ko writes, “For a brief, horrible moment, he could see himself the way he realized they saw him—as someone who needed to be saved.”

Deming does eventually settle into his new life as Daniel, making friends like Roland Fuentes, the only other student of color at his small school, and even coming to love his foster parents, who eventually adopt him. Deming’s passion is playing guitar, but Peter pushes him to pursue a degree in a more employable discipline. Ever the people-pleaser, Deming complies with this request, only to develop a gambling addiction during his first semester of college that derails his life plans. The bulk of the book finds Deming struggling to manage his addiction, appease his loved ones, and follow his dreams, while figuring out, in a spiritual sense, who he really is. Living on Roland’s couch in New York City and trying to make it as a musician, Deming receives a message from Michael, now a medical student at Columbia University. The connection opens a portal to Deming’s past. Deming, desperate for answers that might help him discover his own life’s path, decides to find his mother, who is, surprisingly, alive and well in Fuzhou, and find out why she left him ten years before.

The Leavers takes place across New York City, Ridgeborough, and Fujian, and Ko renders each setting in meticulous detail. From the squalid basement recording studios of Brooklyn and Queens, to the burnt, autumn smells of Minjiang, Ko conjures a sprawling, believable world for her characters to inhabit. This breadth of experience makes Peter and Kay’s insular views seem all the more oblivious, but also reveals the enormous gulf that exists between Deming and his adoptive parents. Transracial adoption is an important aspect of The Leavers; Ko demonstrates how adoptees can be hurt by their parents’ casual racism. One character, Deming’s friend Angel Hennings, is also an Asian child with particularly clueless wealthy, white adoptive parents. Angel’s mother, Elaine, spends one afternoon pompously explaining a Chinese folktale, while showing no interest in Deming’s actual experiences or opinions about Chinese culture.

The Leavers received generally positive reviews from critics. A reviewer for Kirkus called it a “stunning tale of love and loyalty,” while others praised Ko for creating a compelling, nuanced tale about a topical subject. Gish Jen, who reviewed the book for the New York Times, was more reserved in her praise. Jen criticized the structure of Deming’s story, which “eventually devolves into a conventional narrative of a young person learning to follow his bliss.” She added, recalling the theme of gambling that runs through the novel, “It’s hard not to see this book as one that takes risks but then hedges its bets.” Although Amy Weiss-Meyer, in her review for the Atlantic, characterized The Leavers as a political novel, she wrote that Ko largely avoids “the sentimentality and thudding moralism that haunt the genre.” This may be so, but as the story moves toward resolution and redemption, it comes perilously close. The Leavers is at its most affecting on a small scale. For instance, one day, Polly enjoys rare time off from the salon and rides the subway to the end of the line in Brooklyn. Anonymous and alone, she is free to imagine all of the possible routes her life might have taken and might still take. Saddled with debt, she dares to imagine a future for herself in which she is truly free.

Review Sources

  • Hong, Terry. “The Leavers Inspired by a Real Story, Confronts Transracial Adoption.” Review of The Leavers, by Lisa Ko. The Christian Science Monitor, 2 May 2017, www.csmonitor.com/Books/Book-Reviews/2017/0502/The-Leavers-inspired-by-a-real-story-confronts-transracial-adoption. Accessed 19 Nov. 2017.
  • Jen, Gish. “Migration, a Makeshift Family, and Then a Disappearance.” Review of The Leavers, by Lisa Ko. The New York Times, 16 May 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/05/16/books/review/the-leavers-by-lisa-ko.html. Accessed 19 Nov. 2017.
  • Review of The Leavers, by Lisa Ko. Kirkus, 23 Jan. 2017, www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/lisa-ko/the-leavers/. Accessed 19 Nov. 2017.
  • Review of The Leavers, by Lisa Ko. Publishers Weekly, 13 Feb. 2017, www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-61620-688-8. Accessed 19 Nov. 2017.
  • Weiss-Meyer, Amy. “The Leavers Is a Wrenching Tale of Parenthood.” Review of The Leavers, by Lisa Ko. The Atlantic, 14 May 2017, www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/05/lisa-ko-the-leavers-book-review/526179/. Accessed 19 Nov. 2017.

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