Ye Chun’s ambitious first novel, Straw Dogs of the Universe presents a concise dramatization of the history of early Chinese immigration to the American West. Many of us know the outlines of this era, which began with the importation of Chinese labor for the construction of the transcontinental railroad and ended with the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, the first law to restrict immigration to the U.S. based on race or ethnicity. Using a relatively small number of characters, Chun personalizes both the fear and despair that pervaded the lives of so many of these immigrants, and the fortitude, hope and love that they cultivated anyway.
The central quest of the novel is for Sixiang to find her father, Guifeng, whom she has never met. Sixiang is 10 years old when her village in Guangdong, China, is destroyed by a flood and subsequent famine. She holds faith in her ability to survive even after her mother, for food and money, trades her to a trafficker who transports her to “Gold Mountain,” a Chinese name for the western U.S. in the period during and after the California Gold Rush. Too young for prostitution, she is sold as a house servant, then taken in by missionaries. After escaping the mission and sheltering with a man who had known her father while working on the railroad, Sixiang begins the journey that takes her into the Sierra near Truckee, California.
In alternate chapters, we learn about the life of Sixiang’s father, Guifeng. Tantalized by his own father’s dream of Gold Mountain, he leaves home and contracts with a railroad building team. On his first and only day in San Francisco, he sees a woman from his village he had loved from afar as a boy, Feiyan, who has been enslaved as a prostitute. Although he is sent the following day to a work site in the Sierra, he continues to obsess over Feiyan, eventually returning to help her escape and later starting a second family with her. But his new life falters when he becomes addicted to opium.
At each juncture of her story, Chun examines both large-scale injustices—Chinese people murdered and their white killers released—and smaller humiliations—a temporary employer finds Sixiang’s name too hard to say and instead calls her “Cindy.” The novel culminates with the expulsion of Chinese immigrants from Truckee, once the second largest Chinatown in the US. It is a time of shock and terror, but for this novel’s protagonists, also a time of adaptation and endurance.