Book Reviews

God of Luck by Ruthanne Lum McCunn

Soho Press, USA

book cover

According to Ruthanne Lum McCunn’s introductory note to her captivating historical novel, God of Luck, "an estimated one million men [were] decoyed or stolen from southern China" as part of the international Asian labor trafficking that flourished between 1840 and 1875. About a tenth of these laborers—"slaves" is a more accurate term—ended up in Peru, working under brutal, often deadly conditions to harvest guano, a basic ingredient of fertilizer and gunpowder.

With these arresting and largely unknown facts as an armature, McCunn constructs a vivid, well-researched tale of young, recently married Ah Lung who is snatched by henchmen from the streets of a village where he and his older brother have gone to sell their family’s silk and brought before a local official, supposedly for unpaid debts. Through the collusion of this corrupt magistrate, Ah Lung is forced to sign a "contract," which lands him in the dank, overcrowded hold of a ship en route to Peru’s guano fields. Meanwhile his family, especially his twin sister Moongirl, seeks to locate him and purchase his freedom, while his wife, Bo See, a gifted cultivator of silkworms, helps to sustain the family’s economic viability through her sensitive artistry. To say too much more will spoil the reader’s pleasure in the novel’s suspense.

For God of Luck is, at least to a degree, an adventure tale, as Ah Lung pits his wits against those of his captors in an effort to escape and return home. But McCunn, an excellent writer, offers readers other deeper pleasures as well. Among these is the wide palette of sensory experience the novel presents. Held in darkness between decks as his abductors transport him, for example, Ah Lung charts his movement away from home by listening to the sounds along the riverbanks and feeling the subtle changes of motion as the boat moves into larger bodies of water. Back at home, Bo See increases silkworm production by carrying the eggs against her skin and exalts at the feel of "the faint scritch-scratch of the newly hatched worms."

God of Luck unfolds in alternating chapters, shifting between Ah Lung’s point of view during his bitter odyssey to Peru and Bo See’s point of view at home in the village of Strongworm, where she and her husband’s large and dependent family work diligently to raise ransom money. In these alternating views, McCunn builds suspense and, more importantly, constructs a remarkably layered portrait of a fascinating but little-known era in Chinese history.

Reviewed by Alden Mudge