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From the Notables List–“The Snakehead”

Just today, I returned a library copy of “The Snakehead: an Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream” by Patrick Radden Keefe. It’s yet another of this year’s American Library Association’s Notable Books.

I appreciate how the Notables list introduces me to a wide variety of nonfiction. “The Snakehead” is about human smuggling, specifically the smuggling of people from China to the United States. The story begins with a description of a ship running aground off of the Rockaway Peninsula in 1993. The police officers who spot the ship hear screams, and realize that its passengers are jumping into the ocean. The ship, the Golden Venture, is engaged in smuggling over 300 people into the United States. It’s just a tip of the iceberg of human smuggling detailed in this book. Keefe focuses on a group of smugglers from Fujian Province in China, operating primarily out of New York’s Chinatown. In particular, he follows the career of a woman known as Sister Ping.

Sister Ping runs a business in Chinatown and considers herself a pillar of the community. But it’s impossible to be engaged in this kind of smuggling without being involved in some remarkably dangerous relationships with gangs and the underworld. U.S. law enforcement must wait a long time to pull together the information to convict her.

Although primarily the story of SIster Ping, the book broadens in scope to include how political angles such as China’s population policies September 11 impact the destiny of people entering the United States illegally. Keefe also explores the international scope of smuggling, showing how just one country that doesn’t enforce immigration and identity laws allows human smuggling to around the world. Behind all of this is a sense that people are willing to sacrifice mightily to enter our country.

I began the book feeling a strong sense of story here, but as I progressed, I felt that Keefe lost the plot thread of Sister Ping. Had he been able to sustain that narrative, the book would have enjoyed a stronger sense of story. As it is, it’s a perfectly acceptable nonfiction book on a topic of interest.

I happened to be reading the novel, “Await Your Reply” by Dan Chaon at the same time I was reading this. I’m often surprised by the connections among otherwise unrelated titles. Both of these books revolve around people who use multiple identities. Both raise the question of what we’re willing to give up in order to thwart the law, and the degree to which we’re willing to sacrifice friends and family in the process.

I’d recommend “Snakehead” to people interested in China and to those interested generally in politics and current events.

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