Summary: When Lily was three, her mother put her up for adoption, then disappeared without a trace. Or so Lily was told. Lily grew up in her new family and tried to forget her past. But with the Korean War raging and fear of “commies” everywhere, Lily’s Asian heritage makes her a target. She is sick of the racism she faces, a fact her adoptive parents won’t take seriously. For Lily, war is everywhere—the dinner table, the halls at school, and especially within her own skin.
Then her brainy little brother, Ralph, finds a box hidden in the attic. In it are a baffling jumble of broken antiques—clues to her past left by her “Gone Mom.” Lily and Ralph attempt to match these fragments with rare Chinese artifacts at the art museum. She encounters the artistic genius Elliot James, who attracts and infuriates Lily as he tries to draw out the beauty of her golden heritage. Will Lily summon the courage to confront her own remarkable creation story? The real story, and one she can know only by coming face-to-face with the truth long buried within the people she thought she knew best. (via Goodreads)
Review: Set in the time period of the second Red Scare and McCarthyism, Girl in Reverse is a lovely novel about a Chinese girl searching for her identity. I felt for Lily as she had to deal with horrible racism and bullying in school, and even in her own family – through her parents refusal to even admit that she was being bullied. Lily is the only Chinese person in her high school and the treatment she receives shuts her down, as would anyone else in that situation. It was brutal and honest and I respected Barbara Stuber for not sugar-coating the hurtful words expressed because of fear and propaganda that was being spread at the time. Lily’s search is beautifully done as the mystery is revealed slowly, with Lily questioning if she really wants to know the answers. I like how Stuber expressed the inner conflict an adopted child may go through and the effect that it can have on a family. There is a push and pull desire to want to know one’s origins, one’s biological identity, but also knowing that our identity is also shaped through our experiences. This inner conflict within Lily was beautifully written and very true to life.
On the other hand, while Lily’s character was well-written, I did take issue with the portrayal of two other characters. Mr. Howard, the janitor at Lily’s schools, comes off to me as the Magical Negro trope. Lily ends up befriend Mr. Howard because she received detention for an act of protest and Mr. Howard assures her that she did the right thing. I felt like Mr. Howard’s sole purpose was to guide Lily on being able to stand up for herself and deal with the racism head on. While he does not sacrifice himself for Lily, he is written fairly one-dimensionally because he was just there to help Lily. And yes, I’m glad that Stuber gave Lily a person of color to help her make sense of her world, but I think there could have been more to Mr. Howard to make him seem real instead of a caricature. The other character I had a problem with was Auntie Chow, who Lily ends up befriending, in a way, to learn more about being Chinese. Auntie Chow and her husband are immigrants, but speak with the stereotypical broken English given to Asian characters. The Chows have a son in medical school, so I can presume they have been in America a while, therefore their English would be much better. I just felt that in a novel about searching for identity, specifically a girl’s Chinese heritage, writing Chinese characters using a stereotype was bad form. Both of these character portrayals ruined my enjoyment of the novel.
Recommendation: While the overall story is excellent and Lily is a character you can love, but with the characterization of Mr. Howard and the Chows, I cannot give it a glowing recommendation. Borrow it someday.