The Lost Girl

Written by Liz Harris
Review by Sarah Johnson

A moving romantic novel rooted in its social context, The Lost Girl explores themes of identity and belonging through the story of a young woman of Chinese ancestry and American upbringing at a time when her two cultures remained distinctly separate.

In Wyoming mining country in 1868, seven-year-old Joe Walker rescues a Chinese baby from certain death and persuades his reluctant family to take her in. The story follows Joe and Charity, as she’s named, over the next seventeen years, and Harris manages to cover this lengthy period of time without making the tale feel episodic. The Chinese are deeply resented in the town of Carter because of the perception that they’ve stolen white workers’ jobs. A polite and intelligent girl who helps Mrs. Walker with her chores, Charity faces prejudice from both sides, her Asian appearance contrasting with her more informal American ways. She derives comfort from her blossoming friendship with a girl her age, Su Lin, and her ties to Joe, which endure a lengthy separation as he leaves to become a cattle drover. Once he returns home, their emotional connection looks to develop into something more, but Charity finds herself torn between her heart and society’s expectations.

A British novelist who has lived in the States, Harris has expertly captured her setting, both the local vocabulary and the geographical milieu, with beautiful scenes of the wide-open skies arching over the Wyoming prairie. For this American reader, though, a lighter touch with evoking speech patterns – both the Walkers’ Western twang and the Chinese immigrants’ broken English – would have been more effective. The dramatic tension, which is driven by the era’s cultural turmoil, remains high through the unexpected finale. The casual racism endured by the Chinese is painful to read, but it’s a shameful part of American history that deserves to be acknowledged, as it is here.