Unless you're a history buff, historical fiction can be a tough genre to get into. That is, unless a novel, in addition to covering centuries-old events, grounds itself in timeless—and, occasionally, timely—themes. Straw Dogs of the Universe, a sweeping debut novel by Chinese American writer and literary translator Ye Chun (after the collection Hao), succeeds at all of those things from the beginning.
In the midst of a famine in her rural Chinese village in 1876, 10-year-old Sixiang is sold to a human trafficker by her mother, who hopes her daughter can have a better life in America. Her harrowing journey—and the elusiveness of the American dream—is at the center of the novel.
After the details of the sale are worked out, Sixiang takes off on a treacherous boat ride to California alongside a handful of other girls (not all of whom make it to their final destination). Her goals are to build a better life and to reunite with her father, Guifeng, who traveled to California to work on the transcontinental railroad right before Sixiang’s birth.
Straw Dogs of the Universe follows the parallel stories of father and daughter as they encounter racism and dangerous working conditions, trying at all costs to find family and belonging. There are violent raids on Chinese homes by gweilo (white people), sexual assaults, opium addictions and white saviors who promise salvation through Christianity. (The racism Chun's characters experience feels particularly timely considering the anti-Asian hate we've seen over the past few years.)
Told from multiple perspectives, the novel shines brightest when it’s in the hands of Sixiang and her near unbreakable spirit. Sixiang is a fighter, whether she’s refusing to let her mother bind her feet at age six (and taking pride in being the only woman in her family who’s able to walk long distances) or fleeing the home of the family who first buys her as their housekeeper and nanny. Guifeng’s sections are also compelling, particularly when he’s reunited with an old crush, whom he subsequently helps escape from a brothel.
For fans of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko and C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills Is Gold, Straw Dogs of the Universe is an enthralling historical fiction about anti-Chinese violence, the egregious exploitation of 19th century workers and the persistence of the human spirit.