Its hero is an immigrant, presumably part of the great migrations of the late 1800s and early 1900s. In trying to understand the hero, we modern readers are hampered by our ready knowledge of our life into which immigrants come: the buildings, streets, foods, animals, customs and above all the language which is ours. We may intellectually appreciate these are different for a "stranger in a strange land" but how can we actually empathize or understand their viewpoint?
Tan's graphic novel solves this problem with sepia-toned images that evoke photographs of the immigrant experience, but brilliantly drawn as the immigrants themselves must have experienced it. Walls, windows and statuary have strange shapes; foodstuffs and the stay animals of the city have functional but odd forms; and of greatest importance, every bit of language (documents, newspapers, street signs) are in an alphabet that we cannot in the least bit understand. There are no English-language captions or word balloons to help the reader; like the immigrant, we must pause and puzzle out what is going on.
I am powerfully reminded of the times I walked foreign streets with little knowledge of the local tongue (but I must mentally subtract international symbols and guides.) Does the door in this wall lead to a restaurant or a private house? Do you eat this thing or wash with it? As in Tan's book, the strangers I met were usually helpful but the whole experience was a constant puzzle; and unlike the immigrant, I had a ticket home.Theorists of the graphic novel, from Will Eisner to Scott McCloud, emphasize that sequenced images draw the reader into the story by requiring the unconscious filling of the gaps between the images. Tan's work takes this one step further; while he is far from the first to require the reader to fill in the meaning of uncaptioned images (having been anticipated, perhaps, by Cro-Magnon cave artists), Tan draws the reader into the same meaning-generating exercise as the story's hero. Wowza!
In this state, we readers feel our way through the hero's journey. He seeks lodging, a job, friends and ultimately to be re-united with his family. The story would be well enough if told through conventional verbal narrative, but in Tan's innovative form, nearly every scene, and most especially the finale, build empathy as no mere words can.
This book gave me a deeper understanding of immigrants, and it was a fine story with great art, too.