Straw Dogs of the Universe: A Novel

Image of Straw Dogs of the Universe: A Novel
Release Date: 
October 17, 2023
Reviewed by: 

“The mistreatment of Chinese immigrants has been swept under the rug of the myths of the Old West and American history.”

Readers who are not misled by this book’s somewhat obtuse title with its “Universe” reference hinting of science fiction, are in for an engaging story of the Old West. The “Straw Dogs” of the title are soon explained by an old Chinese saying: “heaven and earth do not choose. They see everything as straw dogs . . . dogs made of straw our ancients used for sacrifices. Real dogs were too expensive, so they made straw ones to serve the purpose. A straw dog was prized as a sacrifice, and then burned or tossed away afterward.”

Set in the latter half of the 19th century in California—“Gold Mountain” to the Chinese—the novel is the story of canonized racism, hatred, abuse, mistreatment, and acts of violence against Chinese immigrants. But rather than tell the story, the author, in the best literary tradition, shows us the mistreatment and its effects through the lives of four characters.

Sixiang is sold out of China by her mother and grandmother as a young girl to save her from famine and starvation, with the charge to find her father in America and bring him home. The errand proves all but impossible as the girl is again sold as slave labor to an established Chinese family in America, then “rescued” by missionaries and farmed out to a Christian family to be civilized. The placement did not last, as her foster mother explained: “I should have known better than to bring her into my household, into our neighborhood. Miss Moore of the mission home warned me that it is most difficult to tame barbarians.”

Guifeng, the father Sixiang longs to find, came to America years earlier to find wealth in the gold fields to send home to support his family in China. But life is hard and after a time there is no money to send home, and the family is all but forgotten. He risks his life on Sierra cliffs building the railroad and works other dangerous jobs, suffers racist attacks, and succumbs to opium addiction in despair and surrender. “One human opposing another. Tooth for tooth, fist for fist. That’s the truth of human history. . . . Humans cannot stop themselves. They want, they worry, they fear, they kill, they regret, they want more to dull that regret, and round and round again.”

During his youth in China, Guifeng admired Feiyan, a girl from a neighboring village, but she was married off to an old man. Unhappy and mistreated, she left the man and fled to Gold Mountain where her only means to survive proved to be selling her body in the brothels there. Guifeng sees her in a chance encounter and spends years plotting a rescue, and they run off to the mountains together. They work at whatever jobs they can find and save to open a diner, named for their daughter, in a Sierra Chinatown, which is twice burned down by anti-Chinese gangs. Feiyan comes to believe that “As long as the white folks were hurting, they needed to hurt someone so that they didn’t have to feel their own hurt. That was their addiction. But when it became commonplace—when killing Chinese men and raping Chinese women became as normal as hunting deer or slaughtering cows—there would indeed be no future for the Chinese in this land.”

Instrumental in the lives of the other characters and knitting them together is Daoshi. Descended from a long line of Chinese holy men, he fled China and the family calling, doubting its rituals, incantations, dances, and prayers. But while working to build the railroad through the Sierra, he finds himself drawn back into the role. “Rising in the southwest were the cold, rugged peaks. The twelve hundred dead could still be up there haunting the tunnels and cliffsides that would shake each time a train rumbled by. Daoshi had performed death rites on makeshift altars to appease them, imagining that they floated up the pined slopes, the snow caps, and merged into the open sky like clouds. He had performed to comfort the living, too, who grieved for their lost ones and feared for their own lives. He had picked up the family trade he’d left behind, turning himself into a real daoshi in the mountains.”

The mistreatment of Chinese immigrants has been swept under the rug of the myths of the Old West and American history. Straw Dogs of the Universe throws back that rug to reveal a dirty aspect of our nation’s past that we have tried, but cannot afford, to forget.