Suzanne's Reviews > On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family

On Gold Mountain by Lisa See
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's review
Jun 23, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: biography, chinese-women-s-writing, nonfiction
Read in November, 2010

Like so many fans of Lisa See's novels I found myself curious as to how she ended up writing about the Chinese-American experience. Through other Goodreads reviews and via her website I learned that she had written an autobiographical work in 1994 which is "On Gold Mountain." As the title implies, the author traces the history of her family back to the village her great-great grandfather immigrated from in the mid-1880's. It is fascinating and must have required exhaustive research, research made more difficult by the lack of written records and the political upheavals within China.
My favorite parts of her story were those chapters describing the life and relationship between her great-grandfather, Fong See, and his white American wife, Ticie. Marriage between Chinese and whites was not legal in California until the mid-20th century (miscegenation laws) so theirs was a contracted marriage. See's colorful descriptions of time and place add to the veracity and richness inherent in this saga.
Although I have read criticisms that See's recounting of what her ancestors said and thought (how could she know?) detract from this nonfiction work, I disagreed. Although this is is not a David McCullough biography, one with every other sentence footnoted and confirmed by multiple sources, each chapter is amply researched and that research is documented at the end of the book. There is also the value of See's family verbal tradition, one in which stories and family histories are recounted in daily life. In our 21st century self-absorbed life it is almost incomprehensible that families lived together above stores that they worked in 6 days per week, that those families shared most meals, that everyone's income was pooled into a family pot then divided, that thousands of dollars was sent every month back to poor relatives in China and so on.
The strength of the book is the period up until her birth. The story from that point is much more familiar and quite American. See is to be commended for staying true to her 1/8th (?) Chinese roots and sharing that proud heritage with the rest of us.

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