Lisa Ko’s book The Leavers may be analyzed under different angles: as the narration of an abandoned child or as the account of a woman who had to mature too soon. However, apart from these personal feelings, The Leavers is also a story of another tragedy: the fear of not knowing where one’s place in the world is. This inability to relate oneself ethnically does not concern only geography. Rather, the main character cannot understand who he is spiritually, which culture he feels more comfortable in, and what nationality he should consider as his native one.
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One of the hooks the author uses to make the book unusual is the number of narrators and the organization of their accounts. Two people are central speakers in The Leavers: Daniel, or Deming, and Polly, or Peilan. Many settings are described throughout the book: home and school, the Bronx and upstate New York, and Fuzhou and Beijing. Ultimately, The Leavers is a story of how tragic one’s life can be when one does not know how to settle down and cannot realize where he or she belongs.
The first thing that stroke me when reading was that the mother abandoned her son and started pursuing her life-long dream of living a better life and traveling. For me, it was impossible to understand why Polly had not taken her child with her or at least had not talked to him about it or left a note. The boy was so attached to his mother that he even lied about a school assignment so that she would leave work earlier and he could spend some extra time with her (Ko 3).
The boy, whose name was still Deming at that point, was very fond of having walks with his only close person in the whole world and of having conversations with her. For me, it was a very sad point when I realized that Polly had gone. However, later, it became obvious that the woman’s freedom-loving nature could not let her act differently. Thus, instead of accusing Polly, I started sympathizing with her.
Ko not only makes the reader feel sympathetic and understanding but she also speaks through her characters to push the audience to such a change of feelings. Polly remarks that Deming would not blame her so much and could understand her if he knew more about her (Ko 122). Having lost her mother to cancer at the age of only six months, the girl was raised by her strict father. The man “used to say women yapped too much,” so the girl had grown up “eating her words” (Ko 121).
Later, the Polly realized that she had too many words “backed up” inside her (Ko 121). The story of Daniel’s mother’s life deserves compassion, but there was still one aspect that kept me doubtful about her decision. If she had felt what it was like to live without a mother, how could she have let her son have the same kind of an unhappy life?
However, whether I approve of Polly’s choices or not, I must admit that the author did a great job depicting the hardships of an immigrant Chinese woman who fails to find her place in her native country, in the USA, or even in her life. The same problem is experienced by Daniel. The most prominent evidence of the boy’s constant feeling out of place is the fact that he has two names both of which are used throughout the book.
His mother continues to call him Deming even after a long time of separation. However, his foster parents who want him to accommodate to the USA better give him the name Daniel. Through discussing profound topics and carefully selecting vocabulary for dialogues and narrations, Ko makes it clear that changing a name is not going to help the main character to adjust. Thus, here the reader encounters another dramatic story: that of a boy who is not only abandoned by his mother but is also very lonely in the society in which he finds himself.
Daniel is constantly torn between the two worlds, and he cannot feel comfortable in any of them. In his new school, he is the only Chinese American, which makes his classmates inclined to mock and offend him. The boy recollects how “in the city, he had been just another kid” (Ko 69). The new experience teaches him that it is “exhausting” to be “conspicuous” (Ko 69). Daniel describes it as a problem of being “too visible and invisible at the same time” (Ko 59). Along with depicting these issues at school, the author also pays much attention to the boy’s changing feelings toward his national identity.
The identity problem for Daniel is closely associated with languages. In order to be accepted as an American, the boy has to speak English. Sometimes, though, he prefers to communicate in Chinese since it offers more freedom of expression: “he loved cursing in Chinese, the breadth of options unavailable in English” (Ko 271). However, there are instances when Daniel feels ashamed of his Chinese origin. This is where the author uses the power of the word to explain the dreadful situation when one refuses to speak one’s native language, being afraid of feeling diminished. Once, he sees a woman in the street who is lost asks him for help in Mandarin.
However, the boy replies in English, “I can’t speak Chinese” (Ko 21). In this episode, the author shows the tragedy of being torn between one’s desire to help and the need to remain “cool” in the eyes of others. Unfortunately, he chooses the second option, and later feels the pang of remorse.
Overall, despite the variety of themes and settings depicted in The Leavers, there is one general theme that serves as a leitmotif of the book: the theme of displacement. The title can be interpreted in two ways, meaning both those who leave and the ones who are left. The main characters know this “leaving” from both sides, and the experience produces many negative effects on them. Some events and actions can be understood and even forgiven, but they are unlikely to be forgotten.
The book is an outstanding depiction of the life of a female immigrant who decides to grasp her chance to escape from the circumstances strangling her. Unfortunately, her escape involves leaving behind her son whose life is not going to be any easier without a mother. In The Leavers, Ko manages not only to show the complicated life of immigrants but also to evoke the reader’s analysis of complex life problems.
Ko, Lisa. The Leavers. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2017.