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~*~CIRCLE OF CRANES is based on an old Asian folktale you may have never heard of, The Crane Wife. While the most well-known version of the tale is Japanese, there are various renditions of the tale in other Asian cultures as well. Annette LeBox reveals the tale as she writes for anyone unfamiliar with the story and weaves lore of women who can turn into cranes into a sophisticated story full of truth as it reveals the grit and crime of the world's underbelly. I'll admit that for most of the time I was reading, I labored under the wrong impression that I was reading historical fantasy from the turn of the twentieth century as immigrants flocked to the melting pot of the US in unsavory conditions in order to prosper. Sweatshops and labor strikes flourished at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, and that's what I thought I was reading. It wasn't until the end when one character has a cell phone that I thought, "Huh, that's odd." It turns out that LeBox has woven her novel around a smuggling incident that occurred in British Columbia, Canada in 1999/2000, where ships were intercepted and shown to be inhumane, the passengers in the worst of conditions. She also looks in-depth at the "intimidation methods used by human smugglers toward undocumented garment workers in the sweatshops of Chinatown, New York" (pg. 338). I had no clue that such places still existed today and that in some ways, life never evolved. The thought is horrifying.
Lebox's blog features more articles involving her detailed research into CIRCLE OF CRANES. She also talks about her trip to China, where she discovered the Miao Minority in Guizhou, which she calls "the poorest and least visited province in China." The area very much follows the ways of the past, having never modernized, which is one reason I thought I was in Ancient China when reading about Cao Hai Lake at the book's beginning. There is a custom that girls must be exquisite embroiderers. If they aren't, they have less of a dowry and can't make a good marriage.
In CIRCLE OF CRANES, main character Suyin is forbidden to learn embroidery. Her grandfather thinks her mother's embroidery ensnared and ruined his son. This lowers her prospects at marriage and a good life. With two parents and her grandparents dead, Suyin bounces from house to house with no permanent home. When a Snakehead (What the Chinese call human smugglers) comes and offers to take one person from the village to the United States in exchange for payment, the village chooses Suyin. She's promised a cruise ship and streets paved with gold, only to find herself crushed into the belly of a dinky boat crammed three-to-a-bed, with little food and too many rats. In New York, she's locked away in a safehouse, and seldom paid for her labor. There are hired thugs willing to kill if immigrants attempt escape without repaying their debt. On top of that, most of the workers were paid between $1-$3 USD, which is despicable and well below minimum wage.
Suyin suffers in the new world, hating that she and her entire village have been duped. Back home, she had an encounter with cranes and was told that she was to undertake a quest, able to one day turn into a crane herself. In New York, the cranes teach her how to embroider, and she slowly tries to improve her circumstances and take her place in the world, to both fulfill her quest to become one with her crane sisters and stand up for what's fair for the friends laboring with her in the slums of New York.
CIRCLE OF CRANES is so much grittier and deeper than I ever expected it to be. I want to learn more about all of the topics and situations LeBox touched on now that the novel's over, and I love the extra information she's featured on her blog, as though she knew I'd come looking. I can't believe humans still live in such deplorable conditions in today's world, that our government turns a blind eye and does nothing. Reading this novel, I truly felt I'd fallen backwards a century, and to find out that this was happening today was shocking. I didn't realize the book was going to feature such deep issues when I picked it up, thinking it would mostly be about a girl's journey to becoming a crane sister. It was, but it was so much more, too. The novel is gorgeously written and really gets into the mind of Suyin as she adapts to her new life, betrayed by everyone and forced to continue on in such revolting conditions. The book is well worth reading and will truly open your mind in more ways than one.