“I found every day that the riches of my life were outside, in the fields and roads. I could not believe that being under the beautiful sky had killed Aki. He had fallen ill at home. It was much more plausible to me that the joylessness of our home life had done him in, and so I could not stop myself from pausing to play a game of marbles or to fashion a scrap of metal into some kind of vehicle. I became so absorbed outside that I forgot my fear, and so my mother’s punishment was the daily price I paid for an afternoon of freedom.” Julie Wu, THE THIRD SON
It’s 1943. As air-raid sirens blare in Japanese-occupied Taiwan, eight-year-old Saburo walks through the peach forests of Toayuan.
The least favored son of a Taiwanese politician, Saburo is in no hurry to get home to the taunting and abuse he suffers at the hands of his parents and older brother. In the forest he meets Yoshiko, whose descriptions of her loving family are to Saburo like a glimpse of paradise. Meeting her is a moment he will remember forever, and for years he will try to find her again. When he finally does, she is by the side of his oldest brother and greatest rival.
Set in a tumultuous and violent period of Taiwanese history – as the Chinese Nationalist Army lays claim to the island and one autocracy replaces another – The Third Son tells the story of lives governed by the inheritance of family and the legacy of culture, and of a young man determined to free himself from both.
In Saburo, Julie Wu has created an extraordinary character, a gentle soul forced to fight for everything he’s ever wanted: food, an education, and his first love, Yoshiko. A sparkling, evocative debut, it will have readers cheering for this young boy with his head in the clouds who, against all odds, finds himself on the frontier of America’s space program.
I’ve been looking forward to reading THE THIRD SON for some time because I follow Julie Wu’s insightful blog posts at Beyond the Margins and in my writing support group Book Pregnant, so I purchased a (signed!) copy from the Concord Bookshop the week of her debut.
From the moment I began THE THIRD SON and met Saburo, I was drawn to him and invested in his safety and well being. Saburo is a highly sympathetic character–a self-sufficient, calm, and intelligent boy abused by his family. From malnutrition to verbal and physical abuse, Saburo suffers, and he seeks small moments of peace in the outdoors at great cost to himself. When he experiences his first moment of tenderness from a young girl named Yoshiko, whom he saves during an air raid, his life becomes a quest to unite himself with this girl, with tenderness, and with peace amid great odds.
Saburo’s determined spirit leads him to achieve great successes with major setbacks and heartbreak along the way, but it is powerful and gratifying to watch this boy grow into a self-confident man. I was particularly fascinated by his experience in America and all that immigrants must learn and endure. I was also interested to read about the history of Taiwan, and the political danger immigrants still faced after they had come to America.
THE THIRD SON is an impressive and moving debut by a gifted writer. I will carry Saburo in my heart long after finishing this book. Readers who enjoy history, stories of immigration, and family saga will love THE THIRD SON.