Lillian Firestone, a Chinese-American teenager who was adopted into a white family and community at age four, digs into her past to help her face her classmates' and teachers' prejudice. Lillian has always known she was adopted. She even has faint memories of her Chinese birth mother. She is the only Asian-looking girl in her high school, and prejudice has been worsening. Her mother doesn't seem to understand, and seems to think that by ignoring it, it will go away. It doesn't. Lillian finally walks out on her history teacher one day when her teacher is ignoring her classmates' taunts, and receives detention for cutting class. In detention, she meets Mr. Howard, the African American janitor, and Elliot James, high school artist extraordinaire. She connects with them enough to continue stopping by the art room even after her detention ends. Mr. Howard slowly begins to share with her about his experiences and what he has learned about facing prejudice. He encourages her to keep up her mental strength and self-esteem, and to stand up for herself. Elliot shares his deepened understanding of the world that he has gained through art.
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At home, Lillian's brother Ralph, a dedicated boy scout, has been trying to raise pigeons in the attic and finds a box that Lillian's birth mother, Lillian Loo, left for her. Lillian's adoptive mother had wanted it destroyed, but her adoptive father put it in the attic instead. Lillian looks through the brushes and calligraphy hand rest and such, and wants to know more. She visits the Asian art exhibit at her local art museum and, at the encouragement of her brother and Mr. Howard, the new Chinese restaurant across the street. She also visits Sister Evangeline at the local convent where she spent a year before being adopted. Evangeline gives her a cloud slipper left by her mother and leaves the convent the following day. Lillian also finds memories of her birth mom resurfacing. She recognizes some Chinese phrases spoken by restaurant owners Mr. and Mrs. Chow, and she recognizes a pearl artifact in the museum where she is sure her mother brought her before leaving her at the convent.
The museum then puts on a presentation about some new Chinese artifacts going on display. Lillian, Ralph, Mr. Howard, and Elliot all go. Mr. and Mrs. Chow cater. Evangeline, no longer a nun, also comes, and Lillian is able to ask her a few more questions. As world-renowned archaeologist Dr. Benton tells about the artifacts, Lillian pieces together who her mother was. Lien Loo was the daughter of a Chinese archaeologist and was on many of these trips with Dr. Benton. She was supposed to come study in the US, but Dr. Benton says she never came. It also contextualizes several photos in the box from her mother.
Lillian brings out her box at home to see if there's any reaction. She finds out about her mother having wanted it thrown out. She has not spoken to her parents of her discoveries of her mother before this. Evangeline has also mentioned that Lillian in a way saved her mother by being adopted, but Lillan hasn't understood or spoken to her mother about this yet.
Lillian's next move is a visit to Mr. Benton at the museum. She brings her box and slippers on the second visit, and from their conversation, realize that Dr. Benton was her birth father. Dr. Benton never knew she existed until then. Lillian had always assumed her father was Chinese and in China, a faceless nobody. But he is a white American archaeologist. On her third interaction with him, she discovers she has a 9-year-old half sister in Chicago. They may or may not ever meet. Knowing that she is half Chinese and half white and hearing Dr. Benton's perspective, however, helps Lillian understand some things: that it would have been difficult for her mother and father to marry in a society where many states forbid interracial marriages; that her mother knew it was difficult for girls in China and wanted her to have a good life; and that her mother's culture required her to return when one of her parents became sick.
Lillian also tells her parents and brother. There is some tension, though her father shows some support. Her brother has been the most supportive throughout, though even he has a temporary meltdown. Her mother is the one with the most to reconcile. She has been living certain lies herself to make herself appear to have had a loving, gift-giving family, where in fact she bought many of those items. Lillian also begins to recognize that when she was adopted, her adoptive mother had been having trouble having children, and had needed a child in her life to nurture. Lillian has experienced first-hand that her mother's approach doesn't always work; the past does not always disappear on command, and knowing it can sometimes help to face the present and the future. Her mother finally begins to understand.
At school, Elliot gives Lillian the perfect tool to confront her classmates: a political cartoon showing her being run down by a tank full of classmates and their racist comments. It is entitled "war casualties at home." Her classmates' guilty silence and attention indicates its effectiveness. Lillian and Elliot have also started to like each other; it is implied that they're beginning to date, even if they haven't admitted it to others yet.
Best part of story, including ending:
I enjoyed reading about the difficulties Lillian faces, and how she learns to respond to them. Lillian's discovery of her mixed heritage also helps the author bring in additional issues that people like Lillian and her parents had to face. I also enjoyed the incorporation of Chinese artistry.
Best scene in story:
When Lillian and Dr. Benton realize he is her father, it is rather jolting for both of them. Dr. Benton never knew she existed, and for Lillian, he was a blank Chinese nobody who probably lived far away in China. She never imagined that she would ever meet him - only her mother at best - and never dreamed he would not be Chinese.
There is also a particularly satisfying scene near the end when Lillian uses Elliot's political cartoon about herself to fight her classmates' prejudice. It seems to be quite successful at making people realize their mistakes.
Opinion about the main character:
Lillian goes through some emotionally difficult discoveries, but finds the courage to continue searching for her truth, and comes out stronger for it.