Today, I'm reviewing L. Tam Holland's debut novel, The Counterfeit Family Tree of Vee Crawford-Wong for our Tuesday Evening reads!
This is a very good book - not only because it features a mixed-race character, but it also covers a period of Chinese history that you don't often see in literature.
Published July 23rd 2013 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Format read: Hardcover (owned)
Plot synopsis (via Goodreads)
After a fistfight, getting cut from the basketball team, offending his best friend, and watching his grades plummet, one thing becomes abundantly clear to Vee: No one understands him! If only he knew where he came from… So Vee does what anyone in his situation would do: He forges a letter from his grandparents in China, asking his father to bring their grandson to visit. Astonishingly, Vee’s father agrees. But in the land of his ancestors, Vee learns that the answers he seeks are closer to home then he could have ever imagined.
I was intrigued by the fact that the book:
1) depicted a mixed-race protagonist and
2) involved Chinese culture
So when the book was released, I decided to check it out. The Counterfeit Family Tree of Vee Crawford-Wong is a funny, realistic and occasionally stark look into one boy's world, and the friends and family around him.
Things that worked:
From the get-go, Vee Crawford-Wong is the quintessential misunderstood bad boy, who’s just looking for a little bit of understanding, and a lot of love.
It's not easy being him - he doesn't fit the physical specifications of either a Caucasian or Asian physical stature, and he also has a letter for a first name.
Though personality wise, Vee is about as far away from L. Tam Holland as you can get, she does a fantastic job of getting inside his head, and showing just how his background has made him confused, angry and belligerent in the way it has. While she never overtly excuses his behavior, Holland does a fantastic job of showing why Vee thinks his behavior is acceptable.
Outside of Vee, I thought the secondary characters were lovely as well. I was particularly taken with Vee's parents - more on this later - and I loved the fact that Vee had friends who were willing to humor him, get mad at him, and were just very genuinein their friendship.
At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, Holland's writing is awesome. Vee's thought process reads like everything you've ever wanted to ask a teenaged boy, but were afraid to.
Through Vee's first person POV, Holland beautifully captures the difficulties of being someone who feels like he doesn't belong to either one of the two cultures that he's from. Between Vee's journey of self-discovery, she weaves in moments of smart observation, snappy dialogue and moments that had me cringing, laughing and crying along with him.
Even though the book does meander a little bit – more on this later - I thought Holland did a relatively good job of depicting Vee’s day-to-day experience, dropping in the occasional bombshell, and propelling the book forward.
Holland does an especially good job in moving the direction forward when Vee and his family arrive in China. It would have been really easy for the focus to have been bogged down in how foreign everything seemed to Vee, but Holland did a great job of having Vee and his family stay on track.
* The treatment of China/Chinese culture
I’ll be frank: as someone who is Chinese, I get a little annoyed when non-Chinese people get things wrong when depicting China, Chinese culture, etc. in literature.
L. Tam Holland does it right. She hilariously point out some of the fallacies in American beliefs on what constitutes Chinese culture, but she also even understands subtleties – e.g. why a Chinese person would be insulted to be called a Twinkie.
I also strongly appreciated her depiction of the journey to China. She nicely captures the modern eccentricities of a city like Beijing – a city that I have family in, and thus, know very well - while also showing how someone like Vee’s father could be nostalgic for the old days, and have his family stay in a hutong.
I also appreciated Holland’s stark, blunt portrayal of the damage that was done during the Cultural Revolution. She’s clearly done her research, and it very clearly shows in the world that she’s created.
Things that didn't work/Things to consider:
While I loved the fact that Vee’s parents were actively involved in his life, I was bothered by the fact that they never seemed to discipline him for anything.
Without giving any spoilers away, Vee does some pretty crazy things throughout the course of the book. While his actions were definitely in line for someone with his emotional issues, they were also the type of actions that would have had a normal teenager grounded until college, had they done the same thing.
But not only do Vee’s parents overlook his actions, they actually state that he’s been driven to these actions due to their (emotional) neglect, which I found a little difficult to swallow.
If I were an educator or a parent, I wouldn’t immediately ask my student/reader why Vee’s parents are wrong, but I would use this as an opportunity to ask how they would have chosen to handle the situation differently.
* The lack of an arc, or not living up to the synopsis
For a book that’s purportedly about Vee discovering his family heritage, the book didn’t actually spend a lot of time on either side of Vee’s family. The reader got one or two sections about Vee’s maternal side of the family in Texas, and got two or three chapters devoted to Vee’s family in China.
While I can understand that this book is ultimately about Vee coming to terms with his parents and himself, I felt a little let down, ultimately. The book had promised an awesome journey of self-discovery involving Vee’s paternal grandparents, and didn’t quite pan out.
I don’t think this juxtaposition is necessarily perfect, but I would recommend The Counterfeit Family Tree… for readers who also enjoyed Robyn Schneider’s The Beginning of Everything. I would also recommend this book for readers who are looking for an unusual hero, whom they might discover is more like themselves than they ever thought.
About the author:
I moved to California to go to college and play more water polo, and now I'm an English teacher, coach, mom, and YA writer.
I love rainstorms, Star Wars, sushi, cooking, and discovering new books to read.
My first YA novel, THE COUNTERFEIT FAMILY TREE OF VEE CRAWFORD-WONG, was recently published by Simon&Schuster. Please give it a read - and maybe even a review!