The exit doors slid open and the Donaldsons streamed out. They headed toward the parking garage in twos and threes and fours, and shortly after the Yazdans emerged to stand on the curb a moment, motionless, as if they needed time to adjust to the hot, humid, dimly lit, gasoline-smelling night. Friday, August 15, 1997. The night the girls arrived. – from Digging to America, page 9 –
Two families wait anxiously in a Baltimore airport on a hot, humid August night. The plane that finally arrives carries two tiny Korean girls: Jin-Ho and Susan. These two children are adopted into two very different families. Jin-Ho becomes part of the Donaldson family made up of earthy, white, middle-class parents Bitsy and Brad; and Susan becomes part of the Yazdan family made up of Iranian immigrant parents Sami and Ziba. Both couples have extended families who are very much a part of their lives. Most importantly are Bitsy’s parents Dave and Connie, and Sami’s mother Maryam. The two families have little in common except for the adoption of two Korean babies who happen to arrive on the same plane, on the same day, in the same city. Although Bitsy and Ziba have vastly different mothering styles, the two become friends through their daughters. And as the years pass with parties and get togethers, both families begin to recognize not only their differences, but their similarities as well.
Digging to America is a book about families and about two cultures coming together with a mix of hilarity and seriousness; it is about loss, joy and pain all mixed together. Anne Tyler explores the idea of being “foreign” in America and the definition of identity as it is wrapped up in our traditions and cultures.
“I am far too sensitive about my foreignness.”
“What? Wait. That’s not what I said.”
But she nodded slowly. “I make too much of it,” she said. She had brought the car to a stop now but she left the engine running; so he gathered she would not be coming in. She stayed facing forward, gazing out the windshield. “One could even call it self-pity,” she said. “A trait that I despise.”
“I would never say that! You don’t have an ounce of self-pity.”
“No, you see,” she said, “you can get in a what would you call it, a mind-set about these thing. You can start to believe that your life is defined by your foreignness. You think everything would be different if only you belonged. ‘If only I were back home,’ you say, and you forget that you wouldn’t belong there either, after all these years. It wouldn’t be home at all anymore.” – from Digging to America, page 181 –
Anne Tyler is a favorite writer for me – I like how she weaves her stories around ordinary people struggling with identity, or family dilemmas, or relationships. I expected to love Digging to America, but there was something missing in the novel. Although I found Maryam perhaps the most complex character, I was put off by her cold demeanor and her barriers to intimacy. I wanted to see her grow, and yet she was perhaps the character who grew the least during the course of the novel.
Another flaw in the book, in my opinion, was that the reader never gets to see the two girls grow up. Who will they become? How will the vastly different parenting styles (influenced largely by culture) impact their growth? Tyler leaves a lot of loose ends which felt unsatisfying to me.
Despite the flaws in the novel, there were some strengths. Tyler artfully reveals the very real biases which different cultures bring to relationships. She exposes the misunderstandings that can arise based on language and cultural differences…and how our expectations of another person’s culture can influence our relationship with that person. Some characters really resonated with me. Bitsy at first appears superficial and silly, but the reader later witnesses her kind and giving heart and her sincerity. Dave, Bitsy’s father, grows from bumbling and dependent into a strong and supportive man who touched my heart with his sensitivity to others.
In the end, Tyler leaves the reader feeling that the differences which separate people can be overcome if you look beneath the color of their skin and past the geographical barriers.
I had mixed feelings about this book – it was not my favorite Anne Tyler novel, and yet it did make me think. For die-hard Tyler fans, it is a worthwhile read.