Girl in Reverse ~ A Chinese-American Teen Searches for Her Story

girlreversecoverBarbara Stuber has transformed artifacts collected in a museum into fragments of story.  Combined, the artifacts create the provenance of teenaged Lily Firestone.  Stuber exquisitely extends the use of the term  provenance from the life story of a work of art,  to the life story of a Chinese American girl who yearns to know her birth mother and to know herself as a girl with power and value.   Girl in Reverse is not only  Lily Firestone’s journey to uncover her identity, it’s also a gripping  mystery ride with clues such as a single small slipper dating from Chinese Sui Dynasty,  a slipper that links China to the U.S., and Lily to her Chinese mother who placed her in an orphanage when she was three, and disappeared.

The novel takes us to 1950s  Kansas City during the Korean War. Lily is adopted by a wealthy founding family of the city. Her mother is cool not only to Lily’s pain as she faces anti-Asian bullying but to Lily’s entire emotional world. The mother’s transformation and revelation of her own provenance is one the many generosities of Stuben’s storytelling.  Girl in Reverse is a mystery of history and the consequences to families  of the political climate of the times in which we grow up and live.  It’s also an adventure tale for young readers.  Stuber gives us Lily’s funny, one-line characterizations such as, “My mother uses a recipe for everything, including ice cubes.”  She gives us the moral compass of one of Lily’s chief guides, a nun who is leaving her order:  “I pick forgiveness and compassion and grace and second chances.”  And throughout the novel, Stuben offers the power of art  as metaphor and as practice to guide Lily in  finding her provenance.  Lily’s friend, Elliott, an artist, says,  “If you want to understand a tricky situation — draw it.”   Girl in Reverse is a deeply satisfying journey of a girl’s  discovery of the depth of  herself.  In the novel’s final line, Lily draws her calligraphy signature, ”  – one upward stroke of ink full of flame and backbone.”

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