Kelli Estes tackles 1880s racism and violence

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  • Unknown-3The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes (Sourcebooks, 2015)
  • In 40 words or less: Parallel stories of a young Chinese woman in the 1880s a modern young woman,  determined to find her calling are brought together at her family’s century-old island home.
  • Genre: Fiction with historical underpinnings
  • Locale: Seattle and nearby islands
  • Time: 1886 -1895 and the present
  • Read this fictional account to spark your interest in the truth about the expulsion of the Chinese in the northwest.

In the 1840s the U.S. was in desperate need of laborers to support the mining camps and build the railroads.  Chinese men were welcomed along the West Coast for this express purpose. So long as they were not integrated into the communities and didn’t take “American” jobs, they were tolerated. By the early 1880s organized efforts began to undermine their ability to work and to send them back to China, preferably at their own expense.

The Girl Who Wrote in Silk opens on one of the most horrific days in Seattle’s history. Armed mobs are entering Chinese enclaves, kidnapping the residents and looting their possessions before taking them to the docks. Mei Lien, her father and grandmother operated a small store. Understanding the danger for young Chinese women, her father has had her live as a young boy and kept her by her grandmother’s side and in the store. After a violent confrontation, they are placed on a ship, allegedly to be sent to China. Late that evening, Mei Lien overhears the ship’s captain planning to throw all the people overboard to their deaths. After sharing this information with her father, he decides she must be saved and pushes her over himself, in the hope that she can swim to shore and be saved.

Inara Erickson is the youngest child of a prominent Seattle shipping family. Having just graduated from college, her father is “helping” her find employment. A family tragedy kept Inara away from Orcas Island for many years. Her aunt’s  death brought her back to the one place she felt at home. Rather than follow her father’s path, she undertook to turn the family homestead into a bed and breakfast. While uncovering the original staircase, one tread was unlike the others. Underneath the board was an intricately embroidered silk sleeve. Finding the sleeve begins her road to discovery about family, history, honesty and forgiveness.

As she went  into the water, Mei Lien was seen by the local postman and fisherman. Joseph rescued her and brought her to his small cabin, nursing her back to health. Though skeptical about her story, the murmurings among his neighborhoods and in town showed her concerns to be warranted.

Not surprisingly, Kelli Estes weaves these stories together to create this novel. Mei Lien’s story is fascinating and tragic. Her isolation as the only survivor from her family and prey to the racism in the community is heartbreaking. Island life was difficult at that time under the best of circumstances. Inara’s story has the clichéd elements of true love at risk due to family skeletons. But by having the modern story Estes is able to provide broader historical details on Mei Lien’s life through Inara’s research using the vast resources of the internet. The present day story also offers the opportunity for restitution and reconciliation.

Kelli Estes deserves a lot of credit for bringing the anti-Chinese riots and expulsions to a wider audience. Mei Lien, The Girl Who Wrote in Silk, is a wonderful character I won’t soon forget.