From the best-selling, acclaimed author of The Welsh Girl comes a groundbreaking, provocative new novel recasting American history through the lives of Chinese Americans.
Winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards
A New York Times Notable Book
From the author of The Welsh Girl comes a groundbreaking, provocative new novel.
Sly, funny, intelligent, and artfully structured, The Fortunes recasts American history through the lives of Chinese Americans and reimagines the multigenerational novel through the fractures of immigrant family experience.
Inhabiting four lives—a railroad baron’s valet who unwittingly ignites an explosion in Chinese labor, Hollywood's first Chinese movie star, a hate-crime victim whose death mobilizes Asian Americans, and a biracial writer visiting China for an adoption—this novel captures and capsizes over a century of our history, showing that even as family bonds are denied and broken, a community can survive—as much through love as blood.
Building fact into fiction, spinning fiction around fact, Davies uses each of these stories—three inspired by real historical characters—to examine the process of becoming not only Chinese American, but American.
Beset by labor shortages, Crocker chanced one morn to remark his houseboy, a slight but perdurable youth named Ah Ling. And it came to him that herein lay his answer.
?— ?American Titan, K. Clifford Stanton
It was like riding in a treasure chest, Ling thought. Or one of the mistress’s velvet jewel cases. The glinting brasswork, the twinkling, tinkling chandelier dangling like a teardrop from the inlaid walnut ceiling, the etched glass and flocked wallpaper and pendulous silk. And the jewel at the center of the box ?— ?Charles Crocker, Esquire, Mister Charley, biggest of the Big Four barons of the Central Pacific Railroad, resting on the plump brocaded upholstery, massive as a Buddha, snoring in time to the panting, puffing engine hauling them uphill.
It was more than a year since the end of the war and the shooting of the president ?— ?the skinny one, with the whiskery, wizened face of a wise ape ?— ?who had first decreed the overland railroad. His body had been carried home in a palace car much like this, Ling had heard Crocker boast. Ling pictured one long thin box laid inside another, the dead man’s tall black hat perched atop it like a funnel. People had lined the tracks, bareheaded even in the rain, it was said, torches held aloft in the night. Like joss sticks, he reflected.
For a moment he fancied Crocker dead, the carriage swagged in black, and himself keeping vigil beside the body, but it was impossible with the snores alternately sighing and stuttering from the prone form. “Locomotion is a soporific to me,” Crocker had confessed dryly as they boarded, and sure enough, his eyes had grown heavy before they reached Roseville. By the time the track began to rise at Auburn, the low white haze of the flats giving way to a receding blue, vegetal humidity to mineral chill, his huge head had begun to roll and bob, and he’d presently stretched himself out, as if to stop it crashing to the floor. Yet even asleep Crocker seemed inexorable, his chest surging and settling profoundly as an ocean swell, the watch chain draped across it so weighty it must have an anchor at one end. Carried to the Sierra summit, he looked set to rumble down the lee side into Nevada and Utah, bowling across the plains, sweeping all before him.
Ling knew he should be looking out the window, taking the chance to see the country, to see if the mountains really were gold, but he hadn’t been able to take his eyes off the steep slope of his master’s girth. My gold mountain, he thought, entertaining a fleeting vision of himself ?— ?tiny ?— ?scaling Crocker’s imposing bulk, pickaxe in hand, following the glittering vein of his watch chain toward the snug cave of his vest pocket.
Ling didn’t own a watch himself, of course, but shortly after he entered service Crocker had had him outfitted with a new suit from his dry goods store, picking it out himself. The storekeep had been peddling a more modest rig ?— ?“a fustian bargain, as it were!” ?— ?that the big man dismissed out of hand as shoddy. He settled on a brown plaid walking suit instead, waving aside the aproned clerk to yank the coat sharp over Ling’s narrow shoulders. “There now!” Crocker declared, beaming at him in the glass. “Every inch a gentleman’s valet.” He taught Ling how to fasten only the top button of the jacket, leaving the rest undone, to “show the vest to advantage,” and advised him he needn’t bother with a necktie so long as he buttoned his shirt collar. “Clothes make the man,” the circling clerk opined, sucking his teeth. “Even a Chinaman.” And then, of course, there must be a hat, a tall derby, which Ling balanced like a crown, eyes upturned. As a finishing touch Crocker had tucked a gold coin, a half eagle, into Ling’s vest pocket ?— ?a gift, though the cost of the outfit itself would come out of his wages ?— ?where Ling could swear the thing actually seemed to tick against his ribs like a heartbeat: rich, rich, rich.
He patted it now, as he finally turned to take in the scenery ?— ?the pale halo of sere grass along a ridge, the stiff flame of a cypress, the veiled peaks beyond ?— ?wondering despite himself if the mountains might glister through the flickering pines.
Gold Mountain. Gum Shan. Ling had never even laid eyes on gold before he left Fragrant Harbor. It had made him feel furtively foolish. There he was, sent to find it and he’d never seen it in his life. What if he didn’t recognize it? How yellow was it? How heavy? What if he walked right by it? “How can you miss it, lah!” Aunty Bao had snapped, over the snick of her abacus. “There’ll be a mountain of it, stupid egg!” But Ling wasn’t so sure. They came from Pearl River. If it were really full of pearls, he wanted to tell her, he wouldn’t be sailing to Gold Mountain.
“Besides,” Big Uncle insisted, “you have seen gold before.” They were in his cabin on the “flower boat,” the moored junk that housed the brothel Big Uncle owned and Aunty Bao ?— ?palely plump as the pork buns she was named after ?— ?managed for him. Yes, Big Uncle was saying, a grandfather had made his fortune prospecting in Nanyang. The old man had had a mouthful of gold teeth. As an infant, Ling had even been given gold tea, a concoction made by pouring boiling water over a piece of gold, supposed to ensure luck. Didn’t he remember? Ling tried. For a second a vast, bared smile, glistening wetly, rose up before him and with it a feeling of fear, an impression, as the lips drew back, that beneath the flesh the man himself was made all of gold, that behind the gold teeth lay a gold tongue clanging in a gold throat. But the only “grandfather” he could actually recall was a broken-down old head swabbing the decks who had already lost those teeth, pulled, one by one, to pay for his opium habit. All that was left was a fleshy hole, the old man’s lips hanging loose as an ox’s, his tongue constantly licking his bruised-looking gums.
Still, Big Uncle pressed, “Gold is in your blood, boy!”
Perhaps, Ling thought, but he’d learned to doubt his blood.
His people were of that reviled tribe of sea gypsies known as Tanka, “egg folk,” after the rounded rattan shelters of their sampans. Forbidden by imperial edict to live on land and only grudgingly tolerated in ports and coastal villages, for generations they’d made a thin living as fishermen, mocked for their stink by the Han Chinese. Latterly they’d made an even more odious, if also more lucrative, reputation smuggling opium for the British and pimping out their women to them for good measure. Ling’s mother had been one of these haam-sui-mui, or “saltwater girls.” “A lucky one,” Aunty Bao observed with a moue of envy, a beauty plucked from the brothel
Winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards
Winner of the 2017 Chautauqua Prize
Finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize
A New York Times Notable Book
A New York Times Editors' Choice
Longlisted for The Story Prize
One of NPR's "Best Books of 2016"
A Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2016
One of BookRiot's "100 Must-Read Books of U.S. Historical Fiction"
Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature—Honor Selection
An Indie Next Pick (September 2016)
"Davies, a master storyteller, blends fact with fiction in this saga of immigration, acclimation, and Chinese culture, which he tells through the experiences of Chinese-Americans at different points in history."—Entertainment Weekly, "12 must-read novels out this fall"
“Davies writes with a rare emotional resonance and a deft sense of structure; it's hard not to be in awe of the way he's composed this complex, beautiful novel. The Fortunes is a stunning look at what it means to be Chinese, what it means to be American, and what it means to be a person navigating the strands of identity, the things that made us who we are, whoever that is.”—NPR
"[A] rewarding, unorthodox novel."—Wall Street Journal
“Intense and dreamlike . . . filled with quiet resonances across time . . . The Fortunes is powerful as a chronicle of perpetual frustration, as each new generation grows aware of the arbitrary line between margin and mainstream . . . What makes The Fortunes so hopeful, the type of novel that could have only been written now, is its willingness to take liberties with that past—to rearrange its details and indulge in speculation, in order to help us imagine a different way forward.”—The New Yorker
"In naming the given scripts of culture, as well as pushing against them, Davies’ characters struggle to belong — not only to race or to history or to stories, but also simply to themselves. And Davies, ever deft, points us into the messy complexity of identity with compassion and nuance, urging us each on toward spaces where we honor and move more freely within what he calls our 'uncertain and contradictory' selves." -- San Francisco Chronicle
"I was very thankful for Peter Ho Davies’ panoramic novel The Fortunes, a moving, often funny, and deeply provocative novel about the lives of four very different Chinese Americans as they encounter the myriad opportunities and clear limits of American life. An essential tale gorgeously told."—Chang-rae Lee, Buzzfeed, "22 Famous Writers Told Us About The Book They're Most Thankful For"
“A prophetic work, with passages of surpassing beauty...The Fortunes is a boldly imagined work of fiction in which historic figures come to an astonishingly vivid, visceral life through the power of Peter Ho Davies’s prose.”—Joyce Carol Oates, Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards citation
"The Fortunes masterfully captures a century of history and the survival of an immigrant community caught between two cultures."—Buzzfeed, "21 Incredible New Books You Need To Read This Fall"
"Davies distills 150 years of Chinese-American history in his timely and eloquent new novel. In Gold, the first of its four sections, Ah Ling, 14, the son of a Hong Kong prostitute, seeks his fortune in California. He works as valet to Charles Crocker, who hires thousands of Chinese to expand his transcontinental railroad. Silver portrays the 30-year career of the LA-born actress Anna May Wong, who co-stars with Douglas Fairbanks at 19. Davies also writes of Vincent Chin, beaten to death in Detroit in 1982 by two auto workers who mistake him for Japanese, and of a half-Chinese writer visiting China to adopt a baby daughter, thinking of how to prepare her to answer the question he’s heard all his life: where are you from?"—BBC.com, "Ten Books You Should Read This September"
"The Fortunes crafts four tales that speak of the broader history of Chinese immigrants in the United States, from the hardworking valet who serves a white railroad mogul to Anna May Wong, the first Chinese-American movie star. Through these elegant, deeply embodied stories, Davies portrays the uneasy relationship between these people and their new country."—Elle, "The 11 Best Books for September 2016"
"[The Fortunes] is somehow both meticulously crafted—meticulously researched historical detail, exquisitely constructed sentences—and a white-hot outpouring of anger...[Its] four-part structure, and its conscious imitation of the multi-generational family epic, makes a profound thematic argument...I found Davies’s novel thrilling and validating...[it] suggested something I had seldom seen elsewhere: Asian-American is a distinct identity, distinct from our ancestors’ nations of origin, and distinct from our current countrymen. It’s not a bungled merging of two identities, not a failure to be authentically American and a failure to be authentically Asian. Not 'caught between two worlds,' as we are often said to be, but its own world altogether."—Kim Fu, Hazlitt
“The Fortunes is the kind of book that raises far more questions than it resolves. Not only does it present a vast swathe of often-ignored history, in deftly fictionalized form, it’s an empathetic book, not just to its protagonists but to its secondary and tertiary characters and even, often, to its villains. It questions motivations, feelings, intentions, rarely certain despite the author’s fictional imperative. Sometimes I found myself wondering ? why is Vincent Chin’s friend curious at all about the kind of father-stepson relationship Chin’s killers had? Why should I care? But The Fortunes isn’t out to convince you that you should care about that, or anything in particular. Instead, it’s doing what a great novel should do: revealing what there is to care about and to think about. Even better, it’s revealing those questions about a slice of history that America needs to be dealing with. The Bottom Line: In a thought-provoking, sharply written, four-part novelistic chronicle of Chinese-American life, The Fortunes proves uneven at times but the powerful prose and themes shine through.”—Huffington Post
“Vividly detailed novellas whose rich language and engaging characters not only bring history alive but also address contemporary issues of race and belonging with heartache, fire and empathy . . . The Fortunes is an important novel that attempts to give voice to Chinese-American characters who have been silenced in the past. Ho Davies' perspective is a welcome addition in the ongoing discussion of race in American society.”—Dallas Morning News
“In his previous novel, The Welsh Girl, Davies captures historical detail in exacting, immersive prose, with the confidence of an eyewitness. In The Fortunes his ability to evoke the mood of an era extends to stylistic choices…The true achievement of this novel
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