Joan is a sixteen year old Chinese American girl who is moving with her family from Ohio to West Virginia. Her parents open up a laundry, but have no customers and little money. The only one who is determined to help the family is the landlady, Miss Lucy, but Joan's parents are reluctant to receive any type of support. Joan is also having a difficult time adjusting and fitting in at school and wishes her parents would act more American. After Joan and her mother work out their differences and accept help from Miss Lucy they both find it easier to become accepted by some in the town.
The Star Fisher is an insightful look into what life would have been like for a Chinese American family in 1927. The author, Laurence Yep, says in his author's note that many of the experiences in the story came from his own family's past when they lived in West Virginia and owned a laundry. He even visited the town and did research on the people his family had known in the area. Although the story does seem very realistic and true to the time period the story's resolution is not completely believable. It seems unlikely that many of the people in the town would begin to accept the family after trying the mother's pie at a church fundraiser. After this happens the laundry receives a lot of business and Joan gains new friends at school. Not everyone changes their mind about Joan's family, but those that do come around rather quickly.
The cultural markers that are present help to make the story realistic. One of the most important cultural markers is language. Yep writes so that the reader knows that the characters are speaking in Chinese, except for when the words are italicized. In the very beginning of the book Joan's parents tell her and her brother, Bobby, and her sister, Emily, to not speak in English with each other. When Joan speaks for Bobby her parents insist that he speak for himself. Joan's parents know very little English, and Joan does not like this since she is always having to translate for them when they are speaking to someone who only knows English. When Joan becomes annoyed with her mother for always making her be the translator, her mother begins to learn English from Miss Lucy.
Chinese is also written in Joan's family. Her father writes in Chinese on the tickets in the laundry and enjoys writing poems. Since Joan's mother cannot write she has her own notation system that she has made up and that only she can read. Joan's parents are not able to read in English and the nasty messages left on their fence must be translated. Joan and her siblings discover that they can write better than the men leaving the graffiti on the fence since the words are always misspelled. When Emily points this out and tells the men they are ignorant it only upsets them more.
Some of the people in town are rude and call Joan and her family names. When Joan is in school some of the students criticize her skin color by saying, "You're a little dark, aren't you?" She responds, "You're a little pale, aren't you?" Joan actually tries to fit in and look like her classmates. On her first day she notices that the girls wear pins so she thinks about making one for herself. When she talks about the way her family dresses she says, "Though both Mama and Papa wore American clothes, that was about the only thing American about them." Joan also says that they "all wore big, ugly shoes that were as heavy as rocks--the kind that mothers called sensible." When Joan and Emily are getting ready for school Emily's hair gets braided, but Joan puts her own hair into pigtails.
Food is an interesting aspect of the book since Joan's family has little money when they first arrive in West Virginia, since they are unfamiliar with American customs, and since her mother cannot cook. On their first day in West Virginia Miss Lucy invites Joan and Emily over for tea. The sisters are curious since they have never had tea with an American before. The girls help get things ready for tea even though they do not know what they are doing. They do not know how to set the table and are surprised that they are able to use nice china. When they are getting their tea poured they are unsure about how much sugar and milk to add since they usually drink tea plain. The ask for 6 spoons of sugar and have the cups filled to the rim with milk. Joan discovers that the tea is too sweet and is unable to drink it.
Joan is sent to the store before her first day of school to buy food for lunch. She only has a few pennies to spend and is only able to afford a loaf of bread and a head of lettuce. She is embarrassed by the lettuce sandwiches she and her siblings will have to eat for lunch, so they eat by themselves. Once they begin making money they are happy since they will be able to by bologna for the sandwiches.
The meals that Joan's family have at home are also interesting since they usually consist of burned rice. Joan's mother was the youngest in her family and never learned to cook, so she always winds up burning everything. When she finally agrees to let Miss Lucy teach her to cook she learns how to make apple pie. It takes much practice to make a good pie, though, so the family grows tired of eating the bad pies that they cannot let go to waste.
"Joan's story will appeal to any reader who has ever felt excluded, but she and her family seem to hold many more stories begging to be shared. Based on tales Yep gleaned from his mother and her family, whose resilience and humor shine through, The Star Fisher offers tantalizing glimpses of interesting characters, but abruptly shifts focus from a family story with the younger sister as a strong character to a relationship between mother and daughter." -School Library Journal
"Based on experiences from Laurence Yep's own family history, the story offers unique insight into the plight of ethnic minorities. It is disturbing but never depressing, poignant but not melancholy, for the principal characters - particularly Mama, who almost steals the show - are individuals with a strong sense of their own worth, facing difficulties with humor, determination, and pride." -Horn Book
Share other young adult books by Laurence Yep that explore the experiences of Chinese American teens. Some titles to share include:
- Child of the Owl
- Sea Glass
- Thief of hearts
- The traitor: Golden Mountain Chronicles, 1885