The Leavers by Lisa Ko
Rating: 4 stars
The Leavers is a thoughtful story exploring the long term effects of a young mother’s disappearance and her 10 year old son’s subsequent adoption on both of their lives. After growing up with his grandfather in a village in China, Deming moves in with his mother in New York City when he’s six. They spend four years together with her boyfriend, his sister and nephew, surviving and making a great team. Then one day, after discussing the possibility of moving to Florida, Deming’s mother doesn’t come home. Heartbroken by the thought she may have abandoned him to move to Florida on her own, Deming now has to cope with his white college professor foster parents in upstate New York, where he is the only Asian kid in his school.
While no one in the story purposely tried to do anything wrong, not many did anything right either. Deming let his mother’s abandonment take over his life and seemed to use it as an excuse for why his life didn’t turn out the way he wanted it to. Polly let a tragic and human rights violating deportation (seriously, 14 months with no lawyer and horrible conditions is sickening and sadly probably not at all uncommon), convince her to let go of her prior life in America, including finding her son. Deming’s adoptive parents tried to erase his past, both out of a concern for his feelings and their own.
Deming’s passivity and dissatisfaction with his life frustrated me. I understood his fear of being abandoned again, but he never took any steps to gain his independence and squandered his chance in college. Ko describes his feelings of never fitting in so despairingly and on occasion painfully. There is a scene in a Chinese restaurant where a woman refers to his language as a dialect of Mandarin. After he embarrasses her by correcting her, he is expected to apologize for his reaction to his culture being treated as a small, insignificant thing that can be misunderstood with no real consequence.
While Polly didn’t always make the right choices, I did admire her for making choices. She demanded more from her life than what she had, her position as a woman in a rural village be damned. She made attempts, however misguided, to get more for herself and her son.
Peter and Kay, the couple who adopt Deming, bothered me because they seemed to expect gratitude for their decision to adopt Deming right away. While they were incredibly kind people to take in a child, Deming had just been abandoned by everyone in his life. He deserved time to grieve for his past and adjust to his new life. I can’t imagine having to act grateful every day of my life for something I couldn’t control and didn’t ask for.
While I had issues with some of the characters, it was because Ko wrote them and their actions as so frustratingly human and relatable. I recommend this for anyone looking for a story on family, immigrants, or what it means to belong.