In Yee’s stunning debut novel, teenager Tam Ling Fan watches one night in the late 1860s as her father, the local magistrate of their town in China, is arrested on fabricated charges. The family’s only hope of earning the money needed to free him is the contract Ling Fan’s twin brother, Tam Jing Fan, has to work on the transcontinental railroad in America. But when Jing Fan dies of influenza, Ling Fan disguises herself as her brother to fulfill the contract herself.
After a nauseating sea voyage to California, Ling Fan sets to work on the railroad, dodging all the dangers of the job, including explosions, tunnel collapses, and the sometimes-violent racism of white Americans. The stakes shoot higher when a fellow worker discovers and threatens to expose Ling Fan’s secret, and she has to fight not only for her job but also for her life.
Yee has wrapped an emotional, page-turning story around a plucky, courageous protagonist. Though brave and determined, Ling Fan is no Mary Sue. She struggles with fear and anger and sometimes makes bad choices, but she ultimately works through them to do the right thing. Yee also doesn’t shy away from illuminating the racism against not only the Chinese workers on the railroad but also the Native Americans through whose land the railroad ran. In a world conditioned to see everything in black and white, Yee challenges readers to see the nuance of life, especially when it comes to the motives of other people.
Perfect for fans of Jamie Ford and Stacey Lee, this young adult novel is highly recommended for teens and adults alike.