The Girl Who Wrote in Silk

The Girl Who Wrote in Silk

by Kelli Estes
Published on July 7th 2015
Pages: 391

The smallest items can hold centuries of secrets...
Inara Erickson is exploring her deceased aunt's island estate when she finds an elaborately stitched piece of fabric hidden in the house. As she peels back layer upon layer of the secrets it holds, Inara's life becomes interwoven with that of Mei Lein, a young Chinese girl mysteriously driven from her home a century before. Through the stories Mei Lein tells in silk, Inara uncovers a tragic truth that will shake her family to its core — and force her to make an impossible choice.
Inspired by true events, Kelli Estes's brilliant and atmospheric debut serves as a poignant tale of two women determined to do the right thing, and the power of our own stories.

This book is absolutely tragic. I read it in one day and then it took me a while to break out of the emotional dead space this left me in.

This is a story about the Chinese Exclusion Acts. Basically, a lot of Chinese immigrants came to the West Coast of the U.S. to build railroads. When that work was finished, many towns decided that they didn’t want Asian people living there anymore. Mobs would form to force Asian people away from their homes with just what they could gather rapidly and carry.  Other towns just murdered their Asian inhabitants. This history isn’t as well known as it should be.  I read about it in detail for the first time in Sundown Towns.

This book is set during the ethnic cleansing of Seattle. Mei Lein and her family are forced onto a boat supposedly heading for China. When they suspect that the ship’s captain is up to no good, her father throws her overboard near an island because she can swim. It is remote enough that she is able to mostly hide with the white man who finds her but she is still treated horribly by the others on the island.

The second timeline in this book takes place in modern times. The daughter of a wealthy white family wants to develop her family’s island vacation home into a hotel. She finds an embroidered sleeve hidden in the stairs. The embroidery tells a graphic story of Chinese people being killed. In attempting to find out about the sleeve, she starts to uncover her family’s part in the ethnic cleansing of Seattle.

This book was written by a white woman. Some people may have a problem with the historical part of the story not being told by an Asian person. I think where this book shines though is in pointing out all the ways in which white people try to avoid looking at the impact of racism.

In the historical sections when Mei Lein can point out people who were there when her family was rounded up, the white person who is helping her has a hard time believing her. They are his neighbors. They’ve always been nice to him.

In the present Mara’s first instinct is to hide evidence that reflects poorly on her family. Other family members don’t want to hear that their inherited wealth is based in racist acts.

This is absolutely relevant to today where people are trying to decide on the legacy of historical people and people in our own families who have been found to be involved in hideous behavior.