The Third Son by Julie Wu (Algonquin Books; 320 pages; $24.95).
Rocky Balboa had an anthem, and so did Daniel LaRusso. Saburo, the irresistible protagonist in Julie Wu’s dazzling first novel, The Third Son, does not have an anthem, nor does he have a championship title, trophy, or belt. But Saburo is just as much an unlikely and humble hero as Rocky and the Karate Kid are. With a strong will, a big heart, and an indefatigable spirit, Saburo fights to survive and thrive in the midst of a family that deems him unimportant and a country drowning in violence, tumult, and autocracy.
A rich and evocative epic, The Third Son centers on Saburo, a tender and good-hearted underdog who drives Wu’s commanding historical novel. Wu introduces Saburo when he is eight years old, in 1943, weeks before the Japanese begin bombing Taiwan. As Saburo recalls in his own distinctive voice, “We all understood Japanese. Taiwan had been a Japanese colony since 1895.” The official language of Taiwan is Japanese, and even his family’s last name, Togo, is Japanese. “But in our heads and in our home,” Saburo explains, “we spoke and were Taiwanese, descendants of the Mainland Chinese….”
Saburo’s life, like Taiwan itself, is complex. He is the third son, “different, somehow,” from his elder brothers Kazuo and Jiro. Saburo does not have a mind for his studies or sports. Instead, it is ” far more interesting” for Saburo, “despite the real and everpresent threat of being struck by” his teacher, “to study the sky outside.” The third son of the Togo family loves “the sky, its boundless, lovely blue, the translucent ruffled pattern of clouds stretching across it.”
Because his face is forever turned toward the skies, he spots the Japanese planes on the horizon before the air raid sirens sound. While fleeing Japanese bombers, Saburo meets a young girl, Yoshiko, and is instantly smitten. After their initial encounter, she suddenly vanishes; her disappearance breaks his young, tender heart.
Wu creates a pattern with the loss of Yoshiko. Nothing comes easily to Saburo; life, for him, is a struggle. Throughout The Third Son, Saburo must fight. He must fight for food, because the majority of food in his household goes to his brothers and not to him. He must fight to live when sickness threatens to overcome him. Saburo must even fight to learn and so cherishes reading The Earth, a book his cousin gives him.
Saburo is “fed as much” from his “growing knowledge of the stratosphere, the ionosphere, and the aurora borealis as from the berries and mushrooms and silvery fish” that he collects from the land around him. “Reading the book” is a “balm” for Saburo, as he witnesses “all the changes in the world outside.” But even that is taken from him.
As the third son, Saburo must also fight for an education. His older brothers are given instruction, but not Saburo. He learns English on his own and studies to be an electrician. His world is shaken, though, when he sees Yoshiko, after years of trying to find her, in the company of his oldest brother. If he wants her in his life, then Saburo must fight for love.
As the years pass, and Saburo wrangles for position in his family and in his country, he comes to see that his future is not in Taiwan. “Saburo,” his cousin tells him, “you have only have one life. Fight for it.” This is all the impetus Saburo needs to try to find a place in America, yet he must also fight to study and work in the United States. That could be the biggest challenge of all.
As Saburo battles his naysayers and fights for a better life, we cannot help but cheer on this beloved underdog. He maintains a great deal of persistence and perseverance despite the obstacles Wu throws in his path. Because we watch him grow to be a good and just man, we develop a strong bond with Saburo; he becomes important to us. Wu forces us to connect emotionally with this character, and the link lasts well beyond finishing the story.
The Third Son is a rich debut featuring a character who I came to see as family. Saburo is a very special narrator, one who resonates and one who will steal your heart. Wu’s story is perfect for fans of Samuel Park, Jamie Ford, Janice Y.K. Lee, and Lisa See. Saburo has so much to teach us about life and about living.