Algonquin Books|April 30, 2013|Hardcover|ISBN: 978-1-61620-079-4
In the middle of a terrifying air raid in Japanese occupied Taiwan, Saburo, the least-favored son of a Taiwanese politician, runs through a peach forest for cover. It’s there that he stumbles upon Yoshiko, who 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 tumultuous and violent period of Taiwanese history – as the Chinese Nationalist Army lays claims to the island and one autocracy replaces another – and the fast changing American West of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, The Third Son is a richly textured story of lives governed by the inheritance of family and the legacy of culture, and of a young man determined to free hiself from both.
In Saburo, debut author, Julie Wu has created an extraordinary character who is determined to fight for everything he needs and wants, from food to education to his first love. A sparkling and moving story, it will have readers cheering for a young boy with his head in the clouds who, against all odds, finds hiself on the frontier of American’s space program.
In 1943 the Americans bombed Taiwan and it was during those bombings that Saburo met Yoshiko. Saburo was only 8-years-old at the time.
Saburo had six brothers and sisters and they were all afraid of their father who was a domineering man with massive fingers and who smoked cigarettes. The mere sound of his footsteps would send all seven children scattering throughout the furthest reaches of the house. In the evenings their father would translate the imperial broadcasts from the radio to the children. All the kids understood Japanese. “Taiwan had been a Japanese colony since 1895. Japanese was their official language, and even our family name, Tongo, was Japanese.” But when they were at home they all spoke Taiwanese and were descendants of Mainland Chinese, and only their father understood the subtle nuances of Japanese language and culture that gave meaning to the official broadcasts.
Saburo was constantly being compared to his oldest brother, Kazuo. His appearance and intellect was so much like his father. Kazou sat on the floor beside their father copying out columns of kanji onto sheets of rice paper. Kazou’s handwriting was much better than Saburo’s, a fact his mother was at all times eager to impress upon him. Basically, Saburo was not treated very well by his family, he was like the black sheep.
By the time the Tongo family were advised to evacuate, Saburo’s parents had already made plans to move to a house north of Taipei, near the farm where his mother had been raised.
One afternoon while sitting in school, ignoring his teacher’s lecture, Saburo thought about the fact that he was the third son, and he recognized how different he was from his brothers. He felt different from all the children sitting around him in the classroom as well. Saburo was staring out the window looking at the sky and the clouds when he suddenly saw three tiny spots moving toward the school. He jumped up from his seat yelling: “Look!” The teacher went to get her stick to strike him for his outburst but at the same time the air-raid siren went off. The entire class erupted in cries of alarm and hurried to their places in line. It wasn’t the first air-raid and they all knew what to do. Some Japanese bureaucrat had decided that the best thing for schoolchildren to do was to run home.
The siren wailed and the children ran holding their writing boards over their heads. Saburo had seen the planes during previous air-raids and today he had seen the planes for himself and could hear the bombs and machine gun fire quite close by. The last thing he wanted to do was leave the shelter of the school but the principal came outside to lock-up and began shouting at him to leave.
Saburo ran to the woods at the back of the school and made his way along a path there. As shells exploded on the railroad tracks and bullets sprayed the roofs of houses and schools he made his way from tree to tree. Then he heard the very distinct cry of a young girl.
Saburo ran toward the sound and found one girl helping another one up. They both looked to be about 8-years-old, with matching school uniforms and the short, severe haircuts required by the Japanese school system. The one girl had fallen and her knee was bloodied, but they were both holding their writing boards over their heads as they’d all been taught to do during air-raids.
The girl that Saburo liked was, Yoshiko he thought she was beautiful. As they ran together through the field, an American plane was headed straight for them with bullets flying. Saburo thought for sure the two of them would be shot down like animals slaughtered in a field. They managed to escape and came out of the field to a bank of stores. Yoshiko’s brother found her and rode her home on his bicycle. Saburo felt abandoned and alone until Yoshiko rubbed his head and told him he was a “good boy”. She had just given him the first tender moment of his life.
When he arrived home late, his mother was waiting with a bamboo switch to beat him with. The pain of the first blow knocked him to his knees – the blunt force of the main branch against his side, the sharpness of the little twigs cutting into the skin between his shirt and the waistband of his shorts. The beating continued and continued until at last she was exhausted. Most days Saburo was beaten for being late for dinner but he couldn’t help himself for he loved the outside so much. No one at home loved him anyway and Kazou was the favoured son who could do no wrong. His mother NEVER beat any of his sisters or brothers, even if they came home late.
Saburo decided that day that he would search for Yoshiko, to find her one day and marry her. And, that is exactly what he did. Meeting up with her again years later, he learned she was involved with his hateful brother, Kazou. Can he win her back, pass a university entrance exam and complete his dream of going to American to get an education?
The Third Son pulled me in from the very first page and I didn’t stop reading until I’d turned the last page. This is a story about overcoming insurmountable odds, having faith in one’s own self, having the confidence to push the envelope further and further to obtain your goals, a story of love, redemption, and a love between two people that spans two continents showing that faith and hope are important values to use in our lives.
Julie Wu’s debut is going to be a huge hit, I just know it. This was a heartbreakingly beautiful and wonderful view of love and history and a rare must-read treat!