Saturday, September 02, 2006

Definition of Determination

Aftershocks by William Lavender

Jessie Wainwright is a stubborn, rebellious, opinionated, courageous, and undeniably likable character. The novel, Aftershocks, by William Lavender begins in 1903, our heroine is introduced early-on as a trouble-maker. Her family, wealthy and prestigious in San Francisco, cannot understand why this fourteen year old girl would ever want to bother with an education and medical school when she could easily make a good match and become a doting wife and mother. But Jessie's goals in life will not be dictated by her father, although she will outwardly submit for the sake of family unity. Thus begins one of the first themes of the book: discrimination against women, particularly women in the workplace.

The second theme of the novel is discrimination against the Chinese. While most wealthy families employed a "house boy" that was Chinese, they were very much looked down upon and viewed as dishonest and inferior. Ching Lee, the Wainwright's houseboy, brings his niece Mei to work as a maid in the household. She is instantly befriended by Jessie, and since she is a quick learner, she is respected by the other members of the family. Eager is one word to describe Mei. She is eager to please...and eager to become an American. Naively eager in some circumstances.

When Jessie's mother becomes ill, Mei moves into the attic room. Ching Lee is against this from the start--he knows no good could come from it--but the family insists. Mei loves living there, and she becomes more familiar with the family--in some cases way too familiar with the family. One night, Jessie hears noises coming from the attic room. Strange noises to her ear and lots of laughter...instantly suspicious of her older brother who has been flirting with Mei...she is shocked to see her father come stumbling out of the attic. Months later, Mei leaves the household along with Ching Lee without a word to anyone--but Jessie fears the true reason is that Mei has learned she is pregnant. Her search for Mei and Lee continues, until she accidentally stumbles into an opium house and is arrested. To say her parents were horrified would be an understatement, she is threatened with boarding school if she disobeys again.

1906. The San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fires make the perfect plot device for moving this story forward and bringing everyone's secrets out into the open. Seeing Chinatown destroyed, Jessie can no longer avoid the obvious...she wants...she needs to find out what happened to her half-sister. In the chaos, she is able to slip in and out of the house and visit the refugee camps where the Chinese are staying...and it is here where the story really begins to unfold.

Aftershocks is a great read. Complex storylines, multiple climaxes and resolutions...and ultimately a very happy ending. Definitely recommend to lovers of historical fiction.

An Interview with William Lavender
The Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake
Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco: The Great 1906 Earthquake and Fire

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