Four Treasures of the Sky by Jenny Tinghui Zhang (2022) is a beautifully written and heartbreaking novel set in the 1880’s in China, San Francisco, and Idaho.
Daiyu is a young girl living with her parents, who are tapestry-weavers, and her grandmother, in a small village near the ocean. Both her mother and grandmother tell her she is good with her hands. But one day her parents are taken by soldiers, and not long after, her grandmother cuts Daiyu’s hair and sends her to the nearest city hiding in the back of a vegetable cart, dressed as a boy, to try to make her way in the world. Throughout, she is accompanied by the ghost of her namesake, a young woman in Chinese folklore who died very young.
She does the best she can, sleeping on the streets and relentlessly asking for work, unsuccessfully, until she is sent to a calligraphy school. The master teacher allows her to clean the school in exchange for room and board, and she listens to the lessons and practices writing characters in the dust. She is happy there, until her hunger leads her to linger in the market hoping to steal a fish. She is caught, but a man saves her pretending to be her uncle and promising to buy her a meal. She follows him, only after walking and walking realizing that there is no meal to come. As his captive, Daiyu is taught English by an old woman and eventually trafficked to the United States in a barrel of coal.
In San Francisco, Daiyu works in a brothel above a laundry but through an amazing set of circumstances does not have to service any customers before escaping, traveling as a boy once again. She has fake papers and travels to Idaho, where she has been told that there is work for Chinese in the mines. Instead, she travels from town to town, believing that the gang who ran the brothel from which she escaped is still looking for her. She stays the longest in a small town working for two sweet Chinese men in their general store, saving her money so she can get to the coast and return home.
But that’s not so easy to do when the racist townspeople blame the few Chinese in the town for everything.
In several interviews, the author explains that the story was inspired by the travels of her father, where he found a roadside marker in Idaho marking the site of the lynching of four Chinese men in the 1880s. Although it is difficult to read, the writing was pleasing and elegant and the author did the horrifying story justice, bringing life to who the four men might have been. The fabulist elements of the ghost of Daiyu accompanying her throughout her life added interest to the story, which otherwise would have been much more only in Daiyu’s head.
It was completely weight-neutral, with no mention, that I can recall, of any character’s body size.