Candy Gourlay returns to the history of the Bontok, an Igorot people in the Philippines, whose lives she previously wrote about in her 2018 novel Bone Talk. This is a companion novel rather than a sequel and describes how some Igorot people were taken to America in 1904 to be put on display at the World’s Fair in St Louis.
The story is seen through the eyes of Luki, a fiercely independent young woman who desires to see and learn more of the world outside her own community. She tells her tale as though she is relating it to her recently deceased mother. It begins in the Philippines and shows how American colonialists entice Luki and some of her friends to voyage to St Louis. Her travelling companions are introduced, including Samkad, with whom she has a fraught and shifting relationship.
Following a description of their long journey by ship and train, the Igorots’ experiences at the World’s Fair form the centrepiece of the story. Unsurprisingly, the circumstances in which they find themselves are not what they anticipated, and they face racism and exploitation, particularly from the man responsible for taking them there. Will they survive and return to the Philippines or remain in America?
Intrigued by a photograph taken at the Fair of a young Igorot boy dancing the ‘cakewalk’ with a white woman, Candy Gourlay thoroughly researched the culture and history of people from a different part of the Philippines than that from which she comes herself and provides further information and a bibliography at the end of the book. This is an involving story about a tough subject not previously explored in fiction for young people and, while some of the events are distressing, Luki’s optimism and agency shine through in a compelling narrative voice.