Loosely based on something that actually happened, this is the story of a boy named Yung Kun-ai, whose destitute and dying mother does something horrific from sheer desperation: She gives him away. Yung is taken on a ship and packed into a cage with other Chinese children where they are transported to the United States. After being tossed overboard, he is miraculously rescued and sent to a Seattle home for orphans and then a boarding school. His life is miserable. But his wealthy sponsor has an idea, and Yung, who is renamed Ernest Young, is given away in a raffle that is a publicity stunt for the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle. The winning ticket is selected by none other than President Taft. The lucky winner of 12-year-old Ernest is Madam Flora, the owner of one of Seattle’s best brothels. And now the story really begins. As horrific as it may sound, Ernest finally experiences the love of a family living and working with the “upstairs girls” and the servants. The only other man in the house is Professor Troubadour, who plays the piano during the parlor evenings. Although he’s barely a teenager, Ernest falls in love with two of the servants, Fahn and Maisie. But something happens to both servant girls in this brothel—one of them is given a somewhat dubious opportunity of a lifetime, while the other is forever scarred physically and mentally.
Bookended by Seattle’s two world’s fairs—the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition and the 1962 Century 21 Exposition—the novel digs deep into the culture and lifestyle of the city’s red-light district, the life of a working prostitute, and the politics of the early 20th century when Seattle was a hotbed for vice—from brothels to opium dens. The author deftly jumps back and forth in time, primarily focusing on the 1910s and using the chapters that take place in 1962 to show what eventually happened to Ernest, Fahn, and Maisie.
While there is a strong plot, albeit one that is not a page-turner, the primary focus of this haunting and tender historical novel is on the colorful, complex, and unique characters. This richly imagined book is both brilliant and beautiful.
Bonus: Do take the time to read the author’s note at the end of the book to better understand the genesis of this most unusual story.