August 8th, 2013

Julie Wu's The Third Son

Julie Wu's debut novel The Third Son (Algonquin Books, 2013) traces the life of a Taiwanese boy through WWII bombings, the Nationalist takeover of the island, and an eventual move to the United States for graduate education.

The first person narrator is Saburo, which is the Japanese name that he used throughout the first part of his childhood until the end of WWII when Japan lost control of Taiwan (which it held as a colony from 1895 to 1945). While he continues to use his Japanese name with his family, once the Nationalists take over the island, he publicly uses his Chinese name Chia-lin instead. This novel is interesting in many ways for how it deals with the complicated history of colonialism and language in Taiwan.

Saburo is the third son in his family, and his parents treat him rather poorly, always heaping praise, food, and attention on the eldest son Kazuo instead. Further alienating him in his parents' eyes, at least in his own understanding, is that his younger brother died when they were both little boys who ran around together outside late into the evening. Saburo always felt that he was being punished for letting his brother die (though his brother died of pneumonia, not something Saburo was really responsible for).

Surrounded by an uncaring family, Saburo makes his way through his childhood and young adulthood with the help of a cousin, Toru, who not only helps him with malnourishment and physical weakness by treating him with intravenous nutrients but also encourages him to think and study, ignoring expectations of others like his parents and eldest brother that he amount to nothing in life.

(Spoiler alert.... the following paragraphs summarize broad narrative arcs in the novel...)

The novel begins with a bombing scene when Saburo is in school. The American planes are bombing the island, and the Japanese planes are fighting them off. Saburo runs away from the bombs with Yoshiko, a girl he finds again when he is older and whom he eventually marries. The novel is very much about this idealized relationship that not only spans gaps of time but also in the second half of the novel a transnational distance when Saburo leaves Yoshiko in Taiwan with their newborn son to study engineering in the United States.

At the heart of this novel, though, is how Saburo fights against the way his family always puts him down and the way he was never encouraged to succeed or ever treated lovingly. His resolve to succeed in school is all the more important because his parents, especially his mother, only ever expected the oldest son Kazuo to succeed and funneled all the resources (food, tutor, etc.) to him alone. Saburo, through determination, intelligence, and quite a bit of resolve to fight against the way people including his own family put him down, tests into the best middle school. But his headstrong belief in independence gets him expelled, and he then decides not to pursue the usual educational path of going to only the top schools, enrolling in a junior college instead to learn how to fix radios. Despite this "failure" (his brother does go to the top school, Taiwan University), Saburo then takes the examination to obtain a visa to go study abroad in America and passes. His brother never even attempts to the exam out of fear of failure. The second half of the novel follows Saburo in his time at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Again through extraordinary determination, despite not having obtained a bachelor's degree in Taiwan, he finishes a master's degree in a year and then pursues coursework for a doctorate while teaching.

I found the novel fascinating for its tracing of a crucial span of Taiwan's history, from WWII until the 1960s. Wu does a wonderful job of weaving in the political situation, including a recounting of the events of February 28, 1947 when Nationalists and Taiwanese faced off, resulting in weeks of protests and many deaths. She characterizes the difficult dynamics of living under Japanese as well as Nationalist rule, especially in the figure of Saburo's father who as a politician had to learn to play the game under different regimes of power. Underneath the political narrative, Wu offers a harrowing narrative of family dynamics and how favoritism and underhanded dealings with family members create rifts and hurt.
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