Summary: In the Beautiful Country
Living in 80s Taiwan with her mother, Ai Shi (Anna) eagerly anticipates living in the beautiful country (the US) where their father moved a few months ago. As she gives away her favorite clothes and toys to cousins in preparation for the move, she can’t help but brag about the new life awaiting them. But she’s in for a shock when they arrive at their cramped apartment. Her father was conned into buying a failing fast-food restaurant, and Anna’s parents struggle to make ends meet. At school, she feels like an outsider since she can barely speak English. On top of that, her parents are dealing with some unkind customers who mistreat them because they’re Asians. Can Anna find her way?
This is one of the few verse novels I’ve truly loved. I read it cover to cover one early morning, and it felt imprinted in my mind afterwards. Anna’s voice jumps off the page, and Kuo’s writing is so vivid, that I could feel everything the Zhangs experienced. The verse format works beautifully with the storytelling and I never felt like there were any plot points left behind, which commonly happens with verse novels. It was also so suspenseful because I had to know whether the Zhangs would make it in the end.
In her experiences at the new school, Anna learns a lot about being herself and being proud of her culture, Taiwanese food, and even her language. I also loved seeing the Zhang’s experience at their church and it was interesting that they didn’t feel safe or comfortable enough to share how much their fast-food business was struggling.
Speaking of food, there are many references to food in this story! First, we see the Zhangs start off with American fast food until they have to get creative to keep their business running. It was all delicious. I loved the historical setting, and even though not many period references are made in the story, it’s suffused with that old-timey feeling: no cellphones, sending letters and postcards, and other old-fashioned ways of life.
Overall: In the Beautiful Country
In the Beautiful Country is a moving, poignant, and lyrical verse novel about immigration, identity, food and family. Packed with insightful musings about American culture, immigrant assimilation issues, and the woes of racial prejudice, this story isn’t afraid to shed light on pressing issues. It also uncovers the aching loneliness many immigrants have to deal with when they move to a new country. Fans of LaMotte’s Measuring Up, Warga’s Other Words for Home, and Yang’s Front Desk will eat this up.