Anyone familiar with American history has likely learned something about the immigration inspection station at Ellis Island, a rite of passage for millions of immigrants to the United States from 1892 to 1954. Lesser known is San Francisco’s Angel Island, which served as a gateway for mostly Chinese immigrants. Kay Honeyman explores the troubling legacy of Chinese immigration to the U.S. in her young adult novel, The Fire Horse Girl. Recently, I critiqued her literary debut at the Asian Review of Books:
In a market currently dominated by otherworldly and futuristic dystopia, historical young adult fiction—when done right—is an agreeable, if less trendy, alternative for teenage bookworms. In Kay Honeyman’s debut novel, The Fire Horse Girl, young readers gain exposure to a woefully neglected chapter of U.S. history: Chinese immigration to the United States during the period of the Chinese Exclusion Act in the late 19th century and early 20th century.
Honeyman’s protagonist, Jade Moon, is a bold, hot-tempered, and sharp-witted sixteen-year-old girl, but in 1923, her future appears to be drab and unpromising. Stifled by her father’s deeply entrenched sense of patriarchy and the confines of country life, the most Jade Moon can hope for is an advantageous match with the village brickmaker. Yet opportunity arises when Sterling Promise, an adopted cousin, hatches a plan for him, Jade Moon, and Jade Moon’s father to go to America. As Jade Moon quickly realizes, the “American Dream” remains more accessible in her imagination than on Angel Island, where she and other Chinese immigrants find themselves detained for months (and in some cases, years). When she finally makes it to shore—after several months of setbacks and snafus—Jade Moon confronts an entirely new set of challenges in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
Historically fascinating, The Fire Horse Girl ensures a deeper look at an American immigrant experience that diverges from the well-documented Ellis Island narrative. Throughout the story, Honeyman references the history of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and white Americans’ mounting xenophobia, a fact made obvious by Jade Moon’s tacit choice to stay within the borders of Chinatown (well aware of the boundaries, both visible and invisible, not once does she leave for greener pastures). As Honeyman explains in her author’s note, Chinese immigrants looked for any way to cross borders. A common method was to purchase and use the papers of those who died in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. In fact, posing as a “paper family” is Sterling Promise’s grand scheme to gain admittance to North American shores.
As a young female protagonist, Jade Moon alternatively captivates and frustrates the reader but never bores, and although she finds time to kindle a fickle romance with Sterling Promise, the relationship remains secondary to more pressing matters. For the most part, Honeyman is careful not to romanticize the American Dream or designate any white saviors. Certain threads of the story could be tighter; for instance, the somewhat abrupt disappearance of Jade Moon’s father—who remains fairly two-dimensional in contrast to other, more vibrant characters—seems like an unresolved plot point. Even so, The Fire Horse Girl ultimately succeeds where it counts. A quick yet engrossing tale, Jade Moon’s journey beckons a range of emotions, and while her legacy may be fictional, it exposes a forgotten portion of American history in a compelling and entertaining way.