As a first-time author, Julie Wu draws on family history in her historical fiction novel, The Third Son. Set initially in 1940s Japanese-occupied Taiwan, it follows the life of Saburo. He’s not a favored son. In fact, his mother only occasionally deigns to give him protein with his meals. He grows up knowing that he must work harder because no one is going to bless him with advantages.
Still, he’s just a kid. So sometimes he does goofy stuff like making fun of the teacher, which sets him back and subjects him to punishment at both school and home. It seems like a typical coming-of-age story. But what makes it unique is the setting.
As Saburo grows up, the National Revolutionary Chinese army of Chiang Kai-Shek drive the Japanese out of Taiwan. The whole country changes from Japanese traditions and names to Chinese. And political maneuvering, spying, and secrets ensue. In the midst of this, Saburo realizes he has a talent for science. And the place to study science and engineering is the United States. So, he sets his sights on accomplishing things his family tells him are impossible.
Wu is a marginally talented writer, evidenced by the slow start of The Third Son. Early on she focuses on Saburo’s relationship with Yoshiko, a beautiful girl in his class. And while this thread continues throughout the novel, it’s not nearly as compelling as either his dysfunctional family or his career ambitions.
Looking back, I realize that I didn’t fully engage Saburo until about halfway through the book. But the more he fought for a better life, the more I liked both the character and the story. Perhaps it’s because the “American Dream” is embedded in every kid in this country.
As with all historical fiction, I’m grateful to Wu for showing me details of a time and place with which I’m unfamiliar. The political fears and wrangling that follow Saburo even when he leaves Taiwan are intense. That a grown man couldn’t make decisions about his own life without considering these factors is a frightening prospect. And yet, it’s common in so many parts of the world.
Wu also includes many details about the late 1950s Space Race which interested me. As the daughter of an engineer, I liked reading about how academia contributed to this all-out effort that captivated the world.
On the whole Wu develops a good but not great story about coming of age in mid-twentieth Century Taiwan. I recommend if you’re curious about that time and place.
Pairing this book with space-related nonfiction could be interesting. Although I haven’t read either book, these two are on my TBR so I’ll suggest them: Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson or Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly.