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The novel opens with Chen Pan in 1857 signing a contract to go from China to Cuba to work. After surviving a hideous crossing, he is sold at auction. He didnít realize he was headed toward was slavery. He was purchased for work in sugar cane fields and both working and remaining there were violently enforced.
He spent three years cutting cane with African slaves. He knows he, too, is a slave. Chen Pan was one of the few Chinese who made friends with the Africans.
He finally escaped and made his way to Havana. Thus begins the story of the family of Chen Pan. The novel follows several lines of the family Chen Pan from his escape from slavery all the way to the 1970s when one of his grandsons is involved with the Vietnam War and is in Asia where the family began.
The novel spans a period of 113 years of some members of Chen Panís family. It also has family members living in China, Cuba, the United States and even one who is at war in Vietnam.
The novel is gripping, touching, rewarding and yet very hard to keep track of time and who is who. The first chapter, for example, tells of Chen Panís voyage to Cuba, his arrival and escape from slavery. However I found it quite a jolt to come to the end of chapter one and have the second chapter to have jumped to some 90 years later in the summer of 1967 in New York City. Not a word of transition is given, and one begins as though with a new story altogether.
And so it goes chapter after chapter from on time period to another and one place one to another without any particular rhyme or reason. Each piece of the story is well-told, gripping and exciting, but I was having a terribly difficult time figuring out who was who and why we were jumping around from time to time and back again.
Fortunately author Cristina Garcia does provide a family tree just before page one. I kept having to flip back and forth to that chart to figure out who we were taking about and just how these folks fit into the family story. That chart looks like this:
Chen Pan (b. 1837)
m. Lucrecia (b. 1851)
They had three children:
Desiderio (b. 1870) Has twins. Married Ofelia
Lorenzo Chen (b. 1871)
Caridad (b. 1882)
Desiderio: marries Ofelia and they have twins. No further information.
Caridad: no further information.
With First wife:
1. First sister (b. 1897)
2. Second sister (b. 1898)
3. Chen Fang (b. 1899)
Marries: Lu Sheng-Pao
Child: Lu Chih-mo
With Second wife: Jinying
1. Shoy (b. 1903)
2. Meng (b. 1905)
3. Pipo Chen (b. 1912)
Marries: Idalia Quinones (b. 1904)
Child: Domingo Chen (b. 1950)
He is with Tham Thanh Lan (b. 1948)
While the central thrust of the novel keeps returning to Chen Pan, there are long periods of time where the text has hop-scotched around in time without any sort of transition, simply a chapter title change.
Over all I loved the story, but couldnít help wondering why this particular format, or expressed differently, why not a story that was basically in time order of each section. That structure did cause some difficulties for me in wondering who in the world this new character might be, or where it was weíd left a different character when that character reenters the novel some 40 or 50 pages later.
Alas, I simply never arrived at an adequate answer to my question. However, Iím quite willing to believe it is the lack of my own imagination that has pinned my expectation to a time-ordered presentation and that author Kristina Garcia has every right to structure her novel as she wishes.
The main character, the family patriarch Chen Pan, is a lovely man with enormous courage and abilities and a loving way to go about life and living. His kindness to his partner and former slave, Lucrecia is beautifully presented as is her response, going from extreme caution in the beginning to keep her from being abused as she had been, to finally coming to realize what an exceptional and loving man this was. On his side, Chen Pan fell almost immediately in love with this woman and treated her all her life with great respect.
Other significant characters in the novel are also fascinating people with the ability, courage and drive. I was especially attracted to Lu Sheng-Pao, Chen Panís granddaughter whom he never really met since she was born in China and never left there, just as Chen Pan never went back.
Her father, Lorenzo, was another very admirable man, a medical doctor, educated and trained in China, who became a well-known and sought after physician back in Cuba when he finally returned.
Chen Panís grandson, Domingo Chen, was another character whom I came to like and respect, even if he did end up abandoning his pregnant girlfriend in the end. He nevertheless tried to do the best he could in what he saw as a nearly impossible situation for himself.
Perhaps those particularly strong characters that spanned the time from the earlier days of Chen Panís days in Cuba to after his own death are a testament to Chen Panís life and influence on those following generations of his family.
Despite my puzzles and struggles with the structure of the novel, I would highly recommend it to all. It is a heart-warming read.Bob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Corbett email@example.com