Thank you to NetGalley.com and Scholastic for this advanced copy!
As most Chinese and part-Chinese people, we take our Chinese Zodiac sign seriously. I’m an Earth Monkey and my younger son is a Water Monkey and although we are similar in the sense that we are funny and clever as well as other Monkey traits, we are different. I can also admit that I am secretly happy that he is also a Monkey and that I have someone who understands me.
I was thus intrigued by the premise of this YA historical novel. We have a young woman, Jade Moon, who is inauspiciously born a Fire Horse and must carry the burden of being judged by her birth year. I felt for her as she was constantly told that this was the reason why she was constantly at odds with people, why she would never fit in, why she would never hope to marry above a fourth son who would work her to the bone. I wanted to know more about her.
It seems that Jade Moon’s father’s and grandfather’s wishes are granted with the appearance of the curiously-named Sterling Promise. He had come with the most unusual request: he needs Jade Moon’s father to pose as his long-absent younger brother so that Sterling is able to get into America as his “Paper Son.” A bargain is struck, and Jade Moon accompanies them on the long voyage overseas. But before she goes, their longtime servant Nushi bestows on her a sliver of jade which she wears around her neck and her parting words about “how dangerous desperation can be.”
In no time, Jade Moon comes to see how prophetic those words are when the trio are detained on Angel Island which is the “Ellis Island” of the West. Much of our heroine’s growth towards maturity happens in the ensuing quarter of a year that they are made to wait, with the tantalizing glimpse of the mainland (and the American Dream) so close, yet so far away. Jade gets to know a number of the other women like Spring Blossom who are also waiting in limbo and I was caught up with their individual stories as well.
The art and power of storytelling help Jade in a myriad of ways: from making friends to seeking solace to keeping dreams alive. One story in particular runs throughout the novel. The reader becomes well versed in the tale of the Weaver Girl and the Cowherd who are keep apart and yet live for those precious moments they are allowed to be together across the huge divide. One can’t help but look at Jade Moon and Sterling Promise and wonder if they will ever be like their literary counterparts. It is almost impossible due to Sterling Promises’ shifty nature and Jade Moon’s obstinate personality.
Jade is later moved to action when she is betrayed by Sterling Promise and must make a choice between being true to herself or being a dutiful daughter and returning to China. Jade Moon comes to realize that the American Dream may be true for some people, but not those attempting to immigrate, least of all a Fire Horse girl. Sterling Promise tells her “that you will not have to kick at the walls of a prison anymore. Those walls may stretch and shrink, but they will always be there. You can never have the complete freedom you imagine.” In stark contrast, she thinks, “It had to be the place I imagined, because I had nothing else.”
Jade attempts to change her luck by disguising herself as a young man (a la Rosalind in ‘As You Like It’) and is taken in by Henry and his father, Mr. Hon, who turns out to lead one of the most powerful tongs (associations which turned into syndicates). Mr. Hon looks at the newly-minted Sung Fire Horse and sees potential. He makes sure that Sung learns more English and how the operation works. He even has Neil, his Irish bodyguard, give Sung fighting lessons in preparation for who knows what.
This second act moves quickly as it becomes more fraught with tension. Will anyone discover Jade Moon’s secret? Will Sterling Promise retaliate? Will Jade Moon ever find the freedom and understanding she seeks?
The author Kay Honeyman did extensive research in preparation of this novel and it shows. I was immersed in this world and it was due to all of the little details that made this time come alive. I was with Jade Moon as she looked up at the confessional poems written in the men’s barracks on Angel Island and was horrified that there were only two reasons a father brought his daughter to America: To marry her off to a stranger or to sell her into prostitution. Her lyrical way with words is attested by the quotes, too numerous to use in this review, that I highlighted in my text.
I was equally engaged in the appendices and explanations that Honeyman had at the end of the work. It is a great YA novel as it has everything: an adventure, a coming-of-age, a history lesson, a love story, and a call to action to fight whatever is holding you down.
After reaching the conclusion, I remembered that early in the tale, Jade Moon, upon seeing Sterling Promises’ fireworks states: “They [the fireworks] were like tiny promises that blossomed into tremendous things, like seeds that grew into trees, a drop of ink that birthed a poem, a dream nurtured into a life.” Like Fa Mulan and the Cinderella in the film ‘Ever After,’ this description fits Jade Moon/Sung Fire Horse perfectly.