Borrowing from the world of an invented lumber camp hero and his blue ox*,the author re-frames the familiar narratives of Paul Bunyan as a Chinese tale, told by the thirteen-year-old protagonist to the appreciative children in the lumber camp. Mei’s concocted Auntie Po is a Chinese giantess guardian who, aided by her blue water buffalo, Pei Pei, protects them from giant mosquitoes as well as outside devious enterprises. The children, both white and black, find these tales soothing as well as amusing. Alas, there are no Chinese children allowed in the camp other than Mei herself. The young protagonist, Mei, lives with her father in a Sierra Nevada lumber camp in 1885. Her father is the camp cook and Mei helps out by baking the most fantastic pies. Ah Hao, a Chinese immigrant, cooks for the white workers who have board as part of their salary and the Chinese workers who live outside of the camp itself and are not provided with board or part of the camp life.
The power of the tales’ characters and the telling of the stories become the backbone of this moving graphic novel. Within the storytelling and outside, in the historical recreation of the lumber camp itself, Shing Yin Khor delves into weighty and relevant matters such as identity, grief, loyalty, gender issues, privilege, racism, and family in an uplifting and honest manner for young readers. This is a tale where the telling of stories and the power of storytelling shine!
Mei and her father’s life are filled with hard work, but there is joy and friendship within the camp until they experience severe repercussions from the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act. This piece of legislation renders their quiet life style amuck. Not even the famous pies seem to calm matters down, but the stories of the adventures of Auntie Po and her blue water buffalo, Pei Pei, help both Mei and her listeners navigate the muddy waters that are the result of decreed prejudice. During this time of introspection Mei realizes that her close friendship with Bee, the white daughter of the camp manager, is not quite as she hoped since Mei looks to Bee as a romantic partner, but Bee has a different future in mind. The honest and nuanced portrayals of friendships between both Mei and Bee and their two fathers highlights the distinct levels of privilege afforded the two families.
Khor’s digital pencil and hand-painted watercolor illustrations are as straightforward as her text. The illustrations of the camp scenes are factually accurate and those of the fantastical characters in the stories of Auntie Po intermingle with the historical world, alluding to their possible existence for Mei in times of stress. The backgrounds of the frames are predominantly white, while the bulk of the illustrations are infused with colour and emotion. The efficient use of diverse sized frames embodies the emotional pressure of the main characters when dealing with various degrees of grief, death, anger, discrimination, anxiety, and joy. The fresh, dramatic line work and muted watercolors depict both the perilous realities of logging and the occasional moments of serenity successfully. The openings to the individual chapters are illuminated with the thematic collections of tools of the logging camp and of their kitchens, offering the young reader further knowledge about the activities of loggers and cooks.
The back matter includes a brief bibliography and an author’s note where Khor acknowledges the Indigenous peoples on whose traditional lands this work of historical fiction takes place. “If history failed us, fiction will have to restore us.” – Shing Yin Khor, Afterword (286)
Highly recommended for all library collections.
*Although the story of Paul Bunyan mostly originated as advertising for logging companies, it eventually entered oral tradition in America.
The Legend of Auntie Po
By Shing Yin Khor
Penguin Random House, 2021
Publisher Age Rating: 9-13
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Middle Grade (7-11), Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation: Chinese-American
Character Representation: Chinese-American, Lesbian, Genderqueer