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Paper Daughter by Jeanette Ingold

May 14, 2010

The theme of my April book display was Secret Identities and I had a lot of fun picking books that fit this category (I Am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be You Class President, Airhead, Hero, Stormbreaker, etc.).

Jeanette Ingold’s Paper Daughter is also about secret identities, but this time it’s not the protagonist who is keeping her true identity a secret.

Maggie Chen’s father was killed in a hit-and-run accident a few months ago. With the school year over, Maggie has a few days to spare before starting her summer internship at a newspaper and begins sorting her father’s papers. Her father had been a respected journalist, raising Maggie to prize honesty, so Maggie is shocked to realize that her father had not been entirely honest about his own past. As she spends time at her internship assisting reporters, she learns that another person had been killed around the same time as her father. Was her father’s death not an accident, after all?

Interspersed throughout Maggie’s narration is another story. In the 1930s, a young man emigrates to America with his sister, but in order to do so under the strict immigration laws at the time, they must take on new identities as Fai-yi Li and Suching Li, the son and daughter of a man already living in America. These historical sections were very interesting and ultimately relevant to the story, but there is little explanation as to how another person’s words came to be part of Maggie’s narrative. Although Ingold does eventually explain the connection between Maggie and Fai-yi (and therefore a justifiable reason for Fai-yi to be able to tell parts of his story in his own words), there are several other voices which only serve to explicate details which Maggie and Fai-yi have no way of discovering on their own. These voices appear late in the book, seeming to serve the reader, not Maggie, as a way of telling the reader concretely, “This is what happened.”

At 176 pages, Paper Daughter is a short, though rather slow-paced, novel. Maggie’s voice is thoughtful and understated, intelligent with inner strength. I wasn’t entirely convinced that a journalist with the reputation of Maggie’s father could maintain certain deceptions for so long, but I did think the mystery angle, the one that Maggie worked on at the paper, plausible. And I have to say that as much as I love a good romance, I also found it very refreshing that there is no romantic subplot for Maggie at all.

But what I liked most about Paper Daughter is how it manages to be both about Chinese-Americans and identity without being *about* race. Yes, there is racism in the historical parts, as there has to be. But the focus of the story is not on Maggie being Chinese-American, it’s on Maggie’s quest to discover the truth about her father, both how he died and what he’d hidden from his family.

Paper Daughter is probably too quiet for readers looking for something fun and exciting. Teens looking for a mystery may be interested, and definitely suggest this to teens who are interested in journalism, as Ingold emphasizes the importance of newspapers despite the current struggles of the newspaper industry.

Book source: ARC from publisher

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