The Girl Who Wrote in Silk

Written by Kelli Estes
Review by Fiona Alison

In 1886, Mei Lien, a young Chinese-American, is rescued from the freezing waters of the San Juan Islands by the tender-hearted Joseph, who nurses her back to health and asks her to marry him. This mixed-race marriage, particularly to an Asian woman, is shunned by the residents of Orcas Island, and the couple endures unnecessary hardship as they are ostracized by bigoted neighbours. When a freak accident kills Joseph, and Mei Lien realises she is dying, she must race against time to preserve and safeguard the future of their 7-year-old son.

Inara Erickson, daughter of a shipping magnate, inherits an Orcas Island estate, originally built by her great-great-great-grandfather. She falls in love with the property on sight and, as she is considering its conversion to a hotel, she comes across an embroidered silk sleeve hidden beneath a loose stair tread. The intricate pictures appear much more than random, and she enlists the help of an expert in Asian studies to research the sleeve’s origins – who embroidered it? Why cut it from the original garment? Why hide it? As the stories in the embroidery unfold, Inara discovers deep connections with its owner and works to right a long-forgotten wrong.

With anti-Chinese sentiment running high in the latter half of the 19th century and the introduction of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and 1892 Geary Act, many white citizens from southern California to Washington State felt justified in forcibly ejecting the Chinese (including legal US citizens) from their homes. This touching dual narrative is full of compassion and hope while providing vivid details of the inhumane treatment of the Chinese, upon whose backs the railroads crossing America were built. Mei Lien’s story is compelling, and her tragic history resonated with me long after, but sadly I found Inara shallow and easily forgettable. A worthy debut about an underrepresented period of Chinese-American history.