Digging to America is the story of two Baltimore families who meet each other in an airport, pre-9/11, when they come to pick up their infant daughters they have adopted from South Korea. It’s similar to other Tyler novels, in that it’s an intimate examination of family dynamics, but it’s different than all the others, too–it’s bigger, as it also examines what it means to be an American.
I know that makes it sound terrible and tiresome, but trust me, it is anything but. It’s one of my favorite Tyler novels, because it is such a skillful look at belonging, and otherness, and how we define those things for ourselves and others.
Although time is spent with several different characters, the main protagonist is Maryam Yazdan, an Iranian-American who came to the U.S. because her husband (an arranged marriage) already lived here. At the start of the book, Maryam is the widowed grandmother of one of the girls who arrived at the airport. Maryam is an American citizen, but she chafes against quite a few American customs and traditions. At the same time, she knows she would no longer belong in Iran after living here for decades, and so a lot of the book focuses on her feelings of not belonging anywhere, of sort of floating along through life unmoored by any real identity. The arrival of her granddaughter Susan sparks a change in her life, as her family becomes friendly with the family of the other little girl who arrived the same night. This family is a much more typical Tyler family–loud, boisterous, huge, and prone to bickering. They are the opposite of everything Maryam considers herself to be, and she resists any attempts they make to assimilate her into their group.
I like this book enough to reread every few years. There’s something about Maryam that tugs at my heart. She is proud, unfriendly (though never discourteous), lonely, and holds tight to the differences that set her apart from most Americans, but something about her vulnerability underneath all that makes her so sympathetic. Like so many other Tyler books (this is the third I’ve reviewed this year, and I reviewed at least that many last year, too), I never grow tired of it.