This book hit a lot of sweet spots for me. Debut novel, historical fiction, unlikely-group-of-outsiders-forming-a-community. An intriguing setting – 1914 ,California – with intriguing characters – Sikh immigrants. So I really enjoyed this book. I loved how spot-on Reddi’s descriptions of homesickness and otherness are: the deep distrust Ram feels of anyone, everyone, upon arrival in his new Californian home; the homesickness “like an infestation”; the confusion and frustration of wanting to belong, but not really wanting to belong; the gradual acceptance that you have become something else, in this new land.
Ram Singh is a young man who’s left his pregnant wife in India to travel to the U.S., sent by his uncle. He wants to make enough money to buy land back home in Punjab. His sojourn to the U.S. will be a few years, he expects. Spoiler: things do not go according to plan.
Ram becomes a victim of what we now call a hate crime at his first stop, where he is injured, and his pride is wounded. He travels to California at the invitation of Karak, a man he met on his travels to the U.S., and moves in with him and another of his fellow countrymen, Jivan, who grows cantaloupes. The Imperial Valley is full of migrant sharecroppers and workers – Japanese, Mexicans, Hindustanis. And it is also, of course, full of racists. Without going into too much more of the plot, I think you can guess that there will be some serious tension.
This a well-researched novel about a fascinating time and place. Reddi’s clearly up on her history (did you know about the California Alien Land Laws? I didn’t!) and shows with heartbreaking clarity the effect that those and similar laws, and the society that conceived them, has on the individual migrants and their families. The migrants, who are largely just trying to make a living and support their families, must walk the finest line between being acceptable to white America and being true to themselves and their values and heritage. These men–yes, it’s mostly men in this book–work hard, both physically and emotionally, to make their way in America, and are rewarded by the white Americans with only pretty words and shallow friendships, and that’s in the best of times. (The more things change…)
Reddi does a great job of showing the multi-faceted tension in their lives – wives and children they’ve never even met at home in Punjab, the homesickness that starts so poignant but dulls over the years, anti-miscegenation and Alien Land laws that limit their freedoms in the U.S., the foundational knowledge that they must be without fault in order to earn the trust of their American supervisors, the perpetual anxiety about the success of their crops…and the knowledge that at any point, no matter what they do, any one of these things could go really, really wrong. It is a story of perpetual disappointment, with glimmers of community and beauty: clear nights, fresh cantaloupes, Punjabi cooking in the middle of the California homestead.
The pace is almost leisurely, with occasional spurts of passion and violence to upset it–you could feel the hot, dusty wait for the cantaloupes to ripen, and the simmering tensions in every dialogue with white Americans. If you read and liked Pachinko, I think you might also like this one.
I have notes, though: The women characters were so interesting, and so underdeveloped. The slow pace was luxurious, sometimes, and annoying at others, and a little more editing might have kept it flowing more smoothly. There is little narrative urgency, and some of the characters’ decisions seem to come out of nowhere and put in for cinematic, rather than character-building, effect. The framing device (the first and last chapters are set in 1974) was pretty weak – I kinda get why she did it, but I think it would have been a lot more effective to just tell the 1914 story. The points that she makes in the last chapter (for instance, Ram the farmer, aghast that his very American grandson doesn’t know the difference between a zucchini and a cucumber, and all that implies) could have also been inserted fluidly into the main plot, without the clunky ending.
So, 4/5 from me, and I’m off to find more books about Sikh history!