In The Leavers, Lisa Ko’s assured debut novel, Deming Guo, an 11-year-old Chinese boy living in New York City, experiences a child’s worst nightmare: His single mother, Polly, an undocumented immigrant, goes to work one day and doesn’t come home. That event is the catalyst for a timely story of immigrant families in America.
As a teenager, Polly, born in a poor Chinese province, gets pregnant after a fling with a classmate. She goes into debt to a loan shark for the money to travel to America, where she has the baby. She soon discovers she can’t care for the boy while working to pay off the debt, so she sends 1-year-old Deming back to China, where her elderly father cares for him. But when Deming is 6, he returns to the U.S. after his grandfather dies.
By that time, Polly is living with her boyfriend; his sister, Vivian; and Vivian’s son, Michael. After Polly disappears, Deming spends a brief stint in foster care. He is adopted by a childless white couple, 40ish professors who live upstate and change Deming’s name to Daniel. By age 21, Daniel is an indifferent student, an aspiring rock musician and an inveterate gambler. His adoptive parents encourage him to enroll in classes at their college, but the city and a music career hold greater appeal. All of these plans are upended when Michael, who hasn’t seen Daniel since the adoption, tracks him down with information about Polly.
Some of the story’s contrasts, especially between Deming’s birth and adoptive families, are too stark, but The Leavers (winner of the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Fiction, awarded by Barbara Kingsolver) is a thoughtful work about undocumented immigrants and the threats they endure. Midway through the novel, Polly recalls a subway ride when Deming was little. The train emerges from underground, “tearing straight into the sunlight, and I couldn’t wait to see your face.” That’s a beautiful expression of love that every family should appreciate.