I picked up Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok at the library and enjoyed very much this carefully crafted short novel about a Chinese girl who must work after school in a sweatshop beside her mother to help bring in money.
Jean Kwok knows her subject, having been such a factory worker herself as a young immigrant in New York City. The author, who went on to attend Harvard and Columbia, has told the story of Kimberly and her mother so poignantly and quietly that I found myself blinking back tears more than once.
At the opening of Girl in Translation, Kimberly is eleven and newly arrived in the city with her widowed mother. Aunt Paula, whose husband owns a sewing factory, has paid for her sister and niece's journey to the West and is happy to exploit the naive newcomers in the sweatshop. She finds them a tenement apartment that has no heat but does have cockroaches and mice, and she takes most of their paycheck for herself. The mother, who is being illegally paid by the piece instead of by the hour, is forced to bring Kimberly to the shop after school each day to help finish more pieces for income.
The public school the girl attends by day is mystifying and sometimes brutal. Her teacher is incompetent and prejudiced, and New York accents are hardly decipherable by a girl whose only English is from textbooks, but Kimberly is brilliant and her aptitude for science and mathematics eventually comes to the attention of the principal.
This is not deep writing, although it is well written and satisfying. The characters are well developed, understandable and likable. How Kimberly manages to triumph over incredible odds--she realizes that she must save her mother and herself using her gift for scholarship--makes for a touching and satisfying story.