Digging to America – Book Review

DiggingToAmericaThe 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.


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    • Kristy on January 2, 2010 at 11:24

    I’ve had this one for a while, but haven’t gotten to it. What are your favorite Ann Tyler books? Great review.

    • Kathy on January 2, 2010 at 11:36

    I read this book a while ago and I think I liked it more than you did. I’m a fan of Tyler’s work too.

    • Wendy on January 2, 2010 at 14:13

    Kristy: I loved Back When We Were Grownups and also Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant…both books are well worth the read. My other favorite of hers is St. Maybe. I’m looking forward to her new book due out any day now.

    Kathy: Are you planning to get her newest book Noah’s Compass?

    • JoAnn on January 2, 2010 at 14:49

    I’m a Tyler fan and really liked the audio version of this book a lot. I agree that Maryam was the most complex character, and while she did seem to warm up a little, there wasn’t much growth. I just accepted that as part of her nature. Would have loved to see what happened to the girls grown up, too. I thought about various possibilities for quite some time afterwards.

    A short time later, I listened to Back When We Were Grownups and absolutely loved it! Tyler has become an ‘audiobook’ author for me.

  1. I do love Anne Tyler … and this sounds pretty ambitious for her. I think she does best when she has a more narrow focus … like one or two characters that she really makes come alive.

    • Jeanne on January 3, 2010 at 06:46

    Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is my favorite, too. I think she writes from the viewpoint of a mother better than from the viewpoint of a grandmother–but maybe I’ll see it differently when I get older!

    • Teddy on January 3, 2010 at 17:21

    I read this book when it first came out, before my blogging days. I would give it the same score. I would like to try another one of her books. Do you have any recommendations?

  2. I read this back in the summer of ’06 and gave it a 8/10 rating, so I liked it just a little bit better than you. I wrote the following, which pretty much sums up my thoughts on the book:

    “It wasn’t until I read Dave’s (Jin Ho’s grandfather) chapter that I began to feel an affinity for any of the characters and their roles as husbands, wives, mothers and fathers. Tyler hits her mark when it comes to understanding (and thus, expressing) the minutiae of the day-to-day process of grieving for a loved one.”

    You can read my review here, if you like, Wendy:


    • Wendy on January 18, 2010 at 09:55

    JoAnn: I LOVED Back When We Were Grownups too! I love Tyler’s work.

    Jenners: I hadn’t thought of the broader focus vs. narrow focus…but I think you are right – Tyler does best with one or two main characters…this book she covered a lot of ground.

    Jeanne: Interesting – hadn’t considered the POV…but you may be right.

    Teddy: Back When We Were Grownups or Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant would be two of her books I would highly recommend.

    Les: Thanks for the link to your review, Les…I agree that it took some time to get close to the characters in this book…and also that Tyler does day-to-day VERY well.

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