Review: Ina Wong’s Su-Ling’s Treasure

 

Mei and I stood transfixed on the deck with our eyes and mouths wide open as we saw the sun rise from behind the horizon, little by little, as if shy of the open sea and sky.  Then suddenly, it shot up into the heavens, high and majestic, golden and glowing, giving warmth and light to the world beneath.

Many authors convey mood and enhance setting and scene by incorporating sunrise and sunset descriptions into their novels. Ina Wong, creator of the young adult novel Su-Ling’s Treasure, handles the common literary device in a relatively original way, depicting two young Taiwanese immigrants watching from the bow of the ocean liner bringing them to 1960’s America. The title character, Su-Ling, an orphaned sixth grader adopted by an American couple, and her college-age cabinmate Mei bond through waking up early and searching the ship for the best vantage point, and continue a friendship after disembarking in the new country.

Religious faith plays a strong role in many characters’ lives, reflecting the outreach efforts of Chinese-American Christians to the recent immigrant population during this time period. Faith provides the core sense of identity and purpose which helps the newcomers survive and adapt to their new environment. The events on the ship, and the events surrounding Su-Ling’s beautiful necklace, which actually belongs to one of the orphanage’s teachers, show faith naturally integrated into the plot and the characters’ lives. Other segments of the book could be enhanced by more closely grounding each and every spiritual and philosophical thought in the physical reality of the characters’ lives, interspersing paragraphs of personal realization and growth with action and description.

Su-Ling’s Treasure offers a very human, interesting variety of characters within Su-Ling’s elementary school class, from the silly, annoying bully Big George to the popular, outgoing Jennifer to the creative, sensitive Miriam. At first glance the children may seem stereotypical, but the characterization works here as we see people through Su-Ling’s eyes, inspiring knowing recognition from many readers who remember their elementary school days. The action, thoughts, and physical descriptions balance well together to create compelling scenes, which keep people turning the page to see what our young heroine will encounter or decide next.

Along with the suspense and pacing, this book’s power comes from its lack of melodrama. Missing math homework, spelling bees, birthday parties, and other childhood events create a backdrop for the novel’s themes of repentance and forgiveness, intercultural tolerance, and loyalty among family and friends. Wong did not feel the need to ‘spice up’ the novel with more dramatic events, which keeps Su-Ling’s Treasure realistic and more easily relatable by exploring serious themes within the simple, ordinary setting. Also she demonstrates how much one can grow and learn through ordinary life, how even average events can spark transformation.

The book struck me as slightly unfinished at the end, although Su-Ling and Miriam reconcile at long last through admitting to each other that they have made similar mistakes in life. Su-Ling also finally makes her decision concerning her shiny necklace, the object and moral concern which serves as a unifying plot thread. Many issues get resolved and Su-Ling and Miriam certainly develop as characters, but I wondered what would happen once Su-Ling had to face school permanently without her best and only friend.

Overall, Su-Ling’s Treasure serves as a compelling story, not simply for immigrants, although one can certainly learn much about historical newcomers to America from this piece. I did think through my positions on bilingual and multicultural education while reading this novel, but this book is much more than an ‘issue’ or themed piece. Children and adults of all nationalities and life experiences can relate to and learn from the universal human themes of personal growth and change present within the pages.

Ina Wong seeks an agent or publisher for Su-Ling’s Treasure and can be reached at inawong@aol.com

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