In 1951, adopted teenager Lily’s Chinese features attract the wrong kind of attention from classmates at her Kansas City high school. The United States is at war, defending South Korea from the invasion of Chinese Communists via North Korea. Propaganda designed to gain American support for the war features evil, slanted-eyed Commies eager to destroy any nation that blocks its path to supremacy, including the U.S. Lily wonders why her Chinese birth mother, whom she now thinks of as “Gone Mom,” could have abandoned her daughter to this fate of ethnic isolation.

In today’s world, Chinese daughters thrive all over the U.S. But in Lily’s time, the rules of segregation reign. Mr. Howard, a black man who works as a janitor at Lily’s school, witnesses her anguish and steps in as a mentor, helping her cope with prejudice. Author Barbara Stuber captures Lily’s isolation beautifully: “I am a Chinese character without a plot.” Lily’s white parents seem shallow, concerned only with appearances, but her half-brother Ralph, with his jug ears and stinking feet, comes alive as Lily’s one true ally. A subplot involving a potential romance with an artist named Elliot pales in comparison to Ralph’s exuberant love for his sister.

Girl in Reverse is a worthy follow-up to Stuber’s 2010 debut, Crossing the Tracks, a finalist for the William C. Morris Debut Award. There are many pieces that must come together to reveal Lily’s past: a box in the attic containing things left by Gone Mom; Elliot’s perceptive artwork; the owners of a Chinese restaurant; and the recollections of Sister Evangeline from the orphanage. The integration of all these pieces strains the story’s pace and requires near-magical coincidences, but it is in keeping with Sister Evangeline’s comment, “A complicated past is best understood a bit at a time.”

 

Diane Colson works at the Nashville Public Library. She has long been active in the American Library Association's Young Adult Library Association (YALSA), serving on selection committees such as the Morris Award, the Alex Award and the Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults Award.

This article was originally published in the May 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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