The book is about Deming Guo and his birth mother Peilan Guo. One day Peilan went missing and the life of the mother and the son changed forever. The story takes place in New York, the United States and Fuzhou, China.
The book is worth reading for its valuable messages. While it is heartbreaking, the interesting narrative methods will encourage readers to fully engage in the reading process.
The Universalities in The Leavers
Even though The Leavers only focus on Deming Guo (also known as Daniel Wilkinson after adopted by a white family) and his mothere Peilan Guo, the implications of the major themes of the book extend to a global scale. Written by an immigrant, important aspects that Ko tackles include identity crisis, parent-children relationship and gender roles in the society. The identity crisis Daniel suffers from not only exists in Chinese immigrants in New York, but also apply to any immigrants in the world who find it hard to understand who they are in the society with diversity; the conflicts in meeting parental expectations for children and the decisions and sacrifices parents make are widespread in every corner of the world- wherever parents and children exist; family duties for men and women and the corresponding expectations based on gender are also prevalent in the society, even though they may vary among places. While writing the book, Ko does not want to contribute to any stereotype people have for immigrant families, but she wishes to reveal the important aspects regarding immigration and parenting to a global scale and seeks resonance from her story.
Asian Americans always find it hard to belong. Similar to the Japanese American protagonists in When the Emperor was Divine, American born Chinese also struggle to find their places in the American society: are they Chinese or American or a bit of both? Having yellow skin, black hair and black eyes, the main character in The Leavers Deming faces doubts like “you’re a fake. What’s your real name? Where are you really from?” While Deming claims to be from Bronx, where he spends his childhood years, classmates and friends still doubt his real origins because of his “different looks”. Daniel struggles with his two identities: Daniel Wilkinson and Deming Guo- one represents his assimilated self after adoption and the other represents his earlier self with Chinese identity. Like Daniel, millions of immigrants struggle to find their places in the society they enter, having to overcome language and cultural barriers. Unfortunately, when they eventually think they belong, they have another identity crisis: one that concerns with the places they come from. When Daniel has finally gotten used to being Daniel, he realizes that “Daniel had lay dormant in Deming until adolescence, and now Deming was a hairball tumor jammed deep in Daniel’s gut”, meaning that it is hard for the two identities to be coexistent. As an outsider in the American society, Daniel goes to Fuzhou, China, but could not belong to the Chinese society either. Besides Asian Americans, people everywhere can feel like outsiders if they are different, despite of their skin colors. As Daniel’s adoptive dad Peter says ” white, black, purple, green, kids of all races have struggles with belonging”. The universality of identity crisis appears frequently in literary pieces, where characters struggle to assimilate from standing out. For example, all characters in the half-Asian-half-white family from Everything I Never Told You differ from the common expectations of their kind. While being accepted is important, it is also valuable to stand out at times and be different. Daniel eventually embraces both of his identities and is determined to live with both of them because that makes him unique. Identity crisis may be a life-long problem, but with the right mind-set and the perseverance to live a happy life, people would know their places in the society.
When it comes to identity, family is an important constituent. Focusing on the Guo family, Ko also deals with the themes of family relationship. While parents face multiple problems when educating their children, children also struggle at times to “make their parents happy”. In The Leavers, Daniel’s birth mom and adoptive parents raise Daniel in very different ways, both encountering major setbacks. Using the family as a tragic lesson, Ko reveals some important insights in terms of parenting. Similar to the parents in Everything I Never Told You, Wilkinsons want “him(Daniel) to succeed in the way that were important to them because it would mean that they had succeeded, too”, and such mindset has been proven to be devastating. Contrasting to the white parents, Peilan (Polly) does not force the love between her son but uses love as an excuse for all of her decisions, which could be toxic for Daniel as well. Under such parenting, Daniel always endeavors to please his parents and friends, but eventually he ends up losing what he loves. Angel has once convinced Daniel that “we can’t make ourselves miserable because we think it’ll make them happy”, telling the truth that healthy family relationship does not pertain making endless sacrifices.
Even though it might be nuance, the themes regarding gender roles and gender inequality are in The Leavers as well. It is revealed that as a woman in her village, Peilan is not expected to go out to work; it is also a common belief in her hometown that “if a woman was unmarried it was her fault for being ugly or independent; if a woman was too devoted to her husband it was her fault for being mushy and desperate…”; Ko uses sarcasm to elaborate the “undeniable domestic duty” woman have, with Vivian expecting that “I (Polly) would cook, even if I had to go to work, that women just loved spending their free time standing in a hot kitchen mincing meat and vegetables, spoiling grown men as if they were children”. In Fuzhou, at least, the obsolete prejudices people hold against women are still very widespread, restricting women from fully developing their potential in the society. People’s biased beliefs are like convictions, and such convictions reveal the social norm, reflecting the majority. Leon says “a mother is supposed to sacrifice for her son, not the other way around”; reflecting upon the statement, people can easily come to realize the selfishness and inconsideration behind it. Ko implies that the gender inequalities and mistreatment to immigrants contribute to the family tragedy, the gender expectations also shaped Polly’s personalities of resistance. Apparently, gender inequalities still exist and are still causing trauma to people’s lives in and outside the United States.
While it may appear that The Leavers limits its theme on immigration and belonging, there are actually many different themes in this book. It deals with the growing construction of cities and its relationship with nature; government’s actions regarding immigrants without papers; typical problems immigrants face. From all the themes, Ko tries to bring to the world the problems we still face in the society today.