The internet is a fabulous place . Ernie Yap recently discovered my blog about our family history. He mentioned that he had just published a novel about a Chinese sojourner in the 19th century and was excited to find out about the life of Jue Joe whose real life story had parallels to the life of "Lee" his main character. I bought Ernie's new novel-"The Story of Lee" and could not put it down. It is a fantastic novel that quickly draws you into the story of Lee's birth in America from Chinese immigrant parents, his boyhood in San Francisco's Chinatown, his education at UC Berkeley , his return to Chinatown serving as a bilingual translator for the head of a Chinese Tong, and later newspaper reporter,his forbidden love affair and marriage to Susan, a white missionary woman, their return to China and ultimate tragedy and finally his return to America and employment as a domestic servant in the household of the Trasks in Salinas. The story is sandwiched between brief reflections of an ageing Lee many years later who has a bookstore in San Francisco in the 1950s.
Ernie Yap has written a fantastic prequel and homage to one of the most interesting Chinese American characters in American literature. "Lee" is a central character in John Steinbeck's opus "East of Eden." While I have read Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" , "Of Mice and Men," "Cannery Row", and "Travels with Charley", "East of Eden" had somehow escaped my attention. I do remember the movie with James Dean but "Lee" is nowhere to be found in the movie version.
Lee is a domestic with the Trasks and is a character in their multigenerational story throughout the book. He speaks initially in pidgin to disguise his fluency in English but later drops the pidgin in his initimate discussions with members of the Trask clan. Steinbeck creates an enduring and important character in his book , something of a philosopher or sage in disguise commenting on the going ons of the Trask family drama.
Steinbeck's use of the "Lee" Chinese American character in "East of Eden" has been the subject of scholarly discussion. A PDF file of a fascinating master's thesis by Lowell Wyse entitled "Convenient Disguise: Engaging Lee in John Steinbeck's East of Eden" can be downloaded by clicking on this link.
Like all great prequels, Ernie Yap's novel about Lee draws you right into his story and leaves you wanting to know what happens next. Yap's novel bookends Lee's life with the story of his life up until his time with the Trasks in Salinas and Lee's old age as an owner of his bookstore but leaves completely to Steinbeck the story of Lee's Salinas years with the Trasks. A reader of Yap's book, like myself, who has not yet read Steinbeck's East of Eden will be left desperately wanting to know what happens to Lee next and will be drawn immediately into Steinbeck's novel . At 600 pages plus, that should keep me busy for some time!
By the way, Ernie Yap's novel is published by Smashwords. Smashwords is an interesting and successful online digital self publishing site which allows authors to self publish their works at no cost and without editorial review. Authors are allowed to set the prices for their works themselves and Smashwords takes a percentage of the proceeds. The books can be digitally downloaded in a variety of formats to be read on e-readers or on your computer. I downloaded his book onto my Kindle. Here is an interesting article from the San Francisco Chronicle about Smashwords.
After reading the "Story of Lee", I bought the Kindle version of "East of Eden" from Amazon and also downloaded it to my Kindle. Paying $13.99 for "East of Eden" was a bit of a shock as I am used to paying less for books from Amazon. According to the Amazon site the price was set by the publisher, Penguin. I was therefore quite interested to read the recent news about the US Department of Justice Lawsuit against publishers including Penguin for E book price fixing.
It is fantastic that through an online publishing venture like Smashwords great new novels can be brought directly to the public at low cost. Ernie Yap's "Story of Lee" is a great example of the success of E publishing!
PS. "The Story of Lee " has also been released as a trade paperback version.