The Leavers

by Lisa Ko

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Deming Guo / Daniel Wilkinson

The main character in Lisa Ko's novel The Leavers is Deming Guo (later Daniel Wilkinson), a Chinese American boy who is born in Manhattan but returned to his mother's city—Minjiang, China—when she is unable to care for him. Deming lives with his mother in New York during the first year of his life but is sent to live with his grandfather after his first birthday. He remains in China until he is returned to New York and his mother one month after his sixth birthday. Deming's mother disappears after he has lived with her for several years (the point in time at which the novel begins), and after a short period he is sent to foster care before being adopted by a white couple, the Wilkinsons, who change his name to Daniel. Deming, now Daniel, remains with them for the remainder of his childhood; by the time he becomes a young adult, Daniel is very confused about his identity and makes a number of poor life decisions before finally giving in to his urge to try and find his birth mother.

Peilan Guo / Polly Guo

Deming's birth mother is named Peilan, or Polly—Peilan being her legal name and Polly being the name she goes by in America. At the beginning of the novel, Polly and Deming live with Polly's boyfriend, Leon, and his sister and nephew; they have become an extended family and are quite happy. However, Polly is offered a job in Florida and wants to relocate, taking Deming and her extended family with her; her boyfriend and his family don't want to leave, and neither does Deming, who won't leave without Leon's nephew, Michael. This leads to a confrontation, which precedes Polly's disappearance.


Leon, who works in a slaughterhouse, is Polly's boyfriend. He offers to marry Polly, but she can't decide whether to accept his offer even after she has said yes. Leon suffers from health problems as a result of his work, which is part of the reason why Polly is ambivalent about marrying him.

Vivan Chen

Vivian Chen is Leon's sister and is good friends with Polly while they live together. After Polly disappears, Vivian and Leon attempt to care for Deming, but Vivian finally surrenders Deming to social services when she decides that they don't have enough money to continue looking after him.

Michael Chen

Michael Chen is Vivian's son and Deming's best friend while the families live together. Michael loses touch with Deming after Deming is surrendered to social services but is able to find Deming, who is now Daniel, later on and reestablish their friendship. Michael is one of the only people whom Daniel trusts and accepts unconditionally.

Yi Gong

While in China, Deming lives with his grandfather, Yi Gong, in Minjiang, Fuzhou Province, until Yi Gong suddenly dies of a heart attack. Polly is heartbroken when she learns of her father's death, as she had believed she would see him again in the future.

Haifeng Li

Haifeng Li is Deming's biological father and Polly's first boyfriend. Haifeng meets Deming for the first time while visiting Yi Gong but doesn't introduce himself; Deming doesn't learn who his father is until much later, when he reconnects with his mother.

Peter Wilkinson

Peter Wilkinson is Daniel's adoptive father, and he tries to help Daniel adapt to his unfamiliar surroundings and encourages him to be practical and build a better life. Peter, however, has issues with his own father which he unknowingly transfers to Daniel, insisting that Daniel follow his instructions about life despite the fact that Peter has...

(This entire section contains 740 words.)

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done the exact opposite, rebelling against his own father and creating a rift between them.

Angel Hennings

Angel Hennings is the adopted daughter of Jim and Elaine Hennings, who are the Wilkinsons' friends. Like Daniel, she is of Chinese descent. Angel and Daniel become good friends while growing up together but grow apart after Daniel borrows ten thousand dollars from Angel and then loses the money in a card game.

Roland Fuentes

Roland Fuentes is Daniel's best friend while Daniel is a teenager growing up in Ridgeborough, New York. Roland is a musician and is bisexual, and he and Daniel grow close sharing their love of music and aspirations to become musicians. Daniel, however, begins to have doubts about his friendship with Roland after Roland responds negatively to Daniel's attempt to contact his birth mother. Daniel also has some misgivings about Roland's attitude toward Michael when Roland meets him.