Every immigrant has a story. So does every immigrant culture. Mingling loss and gain, hope and pain, human migration continues to this day, but Rishi Reddi’s first novel, Passage West, explores the history of a somewhat unknown group: South Asians (specifically, Sikhs from Punjab) transplanted to the West Coast around 1910. Mostly men, they came to labor in lumber mills and farms, where, like many other immigrants, they faced racism, inequality, and xenophobia—along with the possibility of success.
A South Asian immigrant herself, Reddi centers the novel around three young Punjabis: Ram, Karak, and Amarjeet Singh, farmworkers and sharecroppers in Southern California’s Imperial Valley, where by 1913 new irrigation systems transformed the desert into fertile cropland. Karak is a hotheaded risk-taker, Amarjeet young enough to Americanize somewhat, attending high school and joining the army. Ram, the main character, is a bystander, always betwixt and between—half Hindu, fatherless, a poor cousin whose long-suffering wife, Padma, remains in India along with their son.
These interwoven stories are smoothly and sympathetically told. Reddi integrates letters, newspaper articles, songs, quotations, correct Spanish, and even a cartoon into her narrative. There is drama (a race riot, a murder, a High Noon confrontation) and conflicted tenderness (Ram falls in love with Adela, a refugee from the Mexican Revolution) while poor abandoned Padma tugs at the reader’s heart. The raw, arid country setting is convincingly evoked.
Yet for all its poignance, accuracy, and worthiness, the novel never really catches fire. We sometimes seem to plod from disaster to disaster. Perhaps Reddi’s diligent research is almost too obvious? Curious readers will also enjoy Suzanne McMahon’s nonfictional Echoes of Freedom: South Asian Pioneers in California, 1899-1965, where wonderful period photographs perfectly illustrate Passage West.