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REVIEW:  American Pie by Margaret St. George

REVIEW: American Pie by Margaret St. George

Dear Ms. St. George,

Years ago, after reading the DIK review for “A Century of American Romance” at AAR, I tracked down all twelve of the OOP books and read half of them. I can’t recall why I didn’t continue considering how good I thought those six were but, there you have it. Reading a more recent book on Chinese immigration to the US brought this book to mind and I hunted through my house until I found my copy for a reread. Given that you’ve also written under the name Maggie Osborne, anyone who’s not happy reading about the grimmer, grimier aspects of life should probably skip this one.

American Pie by Margaret St. George Lucie Kolska is fresh off the boat from Poland and has just successfully made her way through Ellis Island when she meets Jamie Kelly who’s only one week off a boat from Ireland. As they say in Poland, he’s been struck by “love’s elbow” at the sight of Lucie and knows this is the woman for him. Only problem is he doesn’t ask her name before they are parted and doesn’t learn it ’til after he takes on her brother in a fist fight arranged by a construction foreman to test whether or not Jamie will get a job there. He beats Stefan and thereby ruins his chances to be granted permission to call on Lucie.

Lucie starts her new life in NYC appalled at the tenement where she will live but determined to win her chance at the American Dream. She soon meets Stefan’s Polish fiancée, Greta and begins to settle into her new life. After weeks of looking, she gets a job as a laundress in a private home and is thrilled to be working 12 hours a day, six days a week to earn 80 cents a day. Kind of puts my job in perspective. The juicy gossip about her fellow servants and her employers – the daughter of the house is wearing lip color! – that she passes on to Greta is an American Upstairs Downstairs. Lucie’s wistful descriptions of the differences between the Roper mansion serve to contrast it to the squalid tenement they live in, with the beauty, sunshine and flowers making the two Polish women long for a little home of their own.

American Pie 1990<Meanwhile, Jamie Kelly hangs on to the backbreaking job he won for himself and continues to ask Stefan for permission to see Lucie but is continually denied. He doesn’t give up though and his patience and persistence is finally rewarded. I like the quiet determination Lucie shows in the face of her brother’s vehement resistance, challenging him to let go of the limitations of the old world in which a woman has no choice and embrace the freedoms of the new. Jamie certainly has no problems with Lucie’s intelligence and desire to learn about her new country and shepherds her around NYC on their stolen Tuesday evening dates. He won my approval by not only thinking she should have an opinion but caring about it too.

Fate isn’t always kind or fair to those trying for a piece of the American Pie and all the characters have to suffer advances and retreats in their efforts to have a better life. The trials and tribulations they go through tell much of the horrors of tenement life and the job situation of the poor at that time. There’s a lot of two steps forward, one and a half back. As I said, all the nitty-gritty of it is told. The story does earn major kudos from me because the means by which the Kolskas and Jamie win their part of the American dream also not only brings them all together but cements their final transition from the limitations of their old lives and into the possibilities of their new one.

But the story is also about the love of the two couples. Love so great that it endures through all the above misery. And miracle of miracles, the characters act true to the conduct of the day. No feisty heroines or bed hopping on the side though Jamie and Lucie do chastely fog some windows. Watching Jamie and Lucie fall in love is charming.

This is not always an easy book to read for the reasons I’ve mentioned already and one other that I won’t as it’s a mega-spoiler. Let’s just say I’m glad that we have OSHA now. I once got into a discussion about it with a friend who is married to a Pole and she had a few things to say about the background of the Polish characters as well as the names used in the story but perhaps these were change to avoid confusion for modern readers. Still, reading the book is worth the effort and I’m glad I did. B


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REVIEW:  The Fire Horse Girl by Kay Honeyman

REVIEW: The Fire Horse Girl by Kay Honeyman

“Jade Moon is a Fire Horse — the worst sign in the Chinese zodiac for girls, said to make them stubborn, reckless, and far too headstrong. While her family despairs of marrying her off, she dreams of traveling far beyond her tiny village, living out a story as big as her imagination.

Then a young man named Sterling Promise offers Jade Moon and her father an incredible opportunity: the chance to go to America. As they travel, Sterling Promise’s smooth manners and Jade Moon’s impulsive nature strike sparks again and again. But America in 1923 doesn’t welcome Chinese immigrants, and when they are detained at Angel Island — the so-called “Ellis Island of the West” — Jade Moon uncovers a betrayal that destroys all her dreams. To get into America, much less survive there, she will have to use every bit of her stubbornness and strength to break a new path . . . one so brave and dangerous that only a Fire Horse girl could imagine it.”

Dear Ms. Honeyman,
“Fire Horse Girl” has a truly great intro section – I loved the details about China, the world of Jade Moon and the house servant Nushi. And of snide, 10 toothed Auntie Wu. It sets the stage and shows exactly what Jade Moon needed to escape plus how limited and bound she was by tradition (as a female) and her character (as seen by the Chinese). Life would never have gotten any better for her there. The sea voyage part is also interesting – seeing Jade Moon and Sterling Promise work out their strategy and get to misunderstand each other better (evil grin). I thought it was telling that Jade Moon sees America not only as an escape from China but also a place where she can write her own story and find the freedom to be who she is. She doesn’t merely want to passively transfer her existence to a new place, she wants to actively take charge of it and change it.

The Angel Island part bogged down a little but does present the mind numbing wait that the immigrants went through. By this time the laws were much more restrictive than earlier and certainly more so than better known Ellis Island. I was amazed to learn that days, weeks and months dragged by as the administrative wheels ground. The other “Cowherd and Weaver Girl” fairy story – different from sentimental one Nushi told Jade Moon – is one I’d love to see as the springboard for a novel. In this one Weaver Girl makes her own way to Heaven – and serves as a model for Jade Moon in real life.

I like that Jade Moon makes her own luck – even if she doesn’t see it that way. She grabs at the chances she sees and doesn’t let sentimentality stand in her way. She makes her way, fights her battles and never gives up. Though it’s intriguing to see Chinatown in the early 1920s, with things rapidly changing and the tongs fighting to regain their lost power and prominence, I felt this section dragged just a little as well. It’s a bit hard to believe that she could pull off her deceit for as long as she does, especially since she wasn’t a tomboy. Her relationship with Neil is an interesting comparison and contrast of 2 people fighting against barriers set up due to their nationalities.

Things picked up as Jade Moon shows her Fire Horse bravery by giving another girl a chance at escape from the brothels the tongs are running, and then agreeing to help the cause of locating and then freeing the other poor Chinese women forced into prostitution. That’s gutsy. I love how she still thinks and strategizes through the danger then tries to help those who have helped her. The way she’s eventually saved (and for good) is a clever use of how the Chinese see her.

The road to romance is long with twists and turns, feints and dodges. I was not truly sure about the relationship until the end. But at least her HEA knows what he’s getting into as does she. Jade Moon is a good heroine for young girls to read about. She is strong mentally as well as physically and doesn’t rely on others to save her. Plus this is a dynamite view of a chapter of immigration that probably few know well. B-



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