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Book Review: Sophie and the Rising Sun by Augusta Trobaugh

Woman with 1940s hair in a red dress.Summary:
Sophie was raised in the rural American south by her elderly widowed mother and two crazy aunts.  She was always reserved and a real lady, especially after having lost the first boy she liked in the Great War.  Now the year is 1941, and her neighbor Miss Anne has taken on a Japanese-American gardener. He’s not white, but he’s not quite black either, and he and Sophie have painting in common.

Review:
I was excited to see an Asian male/white female (amwf, as it’s known online) story pop up on Netgalley.  They can be hard to find, and I thought the dual extra setting of the racist rural south and WWII would make it more interesting.  I still don’t doubt that these positive things are what the author was going for, but it didn’t quite come through for me in the story.

Trobaugh picked an interesting writing structure that I found worked well for the story.  It’s a mix of an elderly Miss Anne relating her part of the story of what she saw occur between Sophie and Mr. Oto and an omniscient third person narration.  This lets the reader see both what the town saw as well as some private moments between Sophie and Mr. Oto that we would not have otherwise seen.  It also helped keep the pace flowing forward.

There were also some truly beautiful sequences in the book, such as this sentence:

Too hot. Feel like Satan sucking the breath right out of this old world. (location 1631)

I am disappointed then that I felt the story itself didn’t live up to the writing.  Trobaugh falls prey to some stereotyping tropes, and I don’t believe she realized she did.  I genuinely believe she meant the story to be progressive, but the two minority characters in the story are two-dimensional and essentially act out the roles assigned to them in American pop culture.

In spite of falling for a white woman, everything else about Mr. Oto is stereotype 101 for Asian-American men.  He is: quiet, reserved, effeminate, painfully polite, and bows all the time.   The bowing really bothered me, because Mr. Oto was born in America to first generation immigrant parents.  I don’t know any first generation Americans who hold on to societal norms from their parents’ country around anyone but their family.  The bowing is used as a plot device to show how Mr. Oto is “different” and makes some of the rural whites uncomfortable.  I kept hoping that maybe Mr. Oto was putting on an act for the white people to keep himself safe and we would see that he was actually a strong man around Sophie in private, but no. He is precisely the emasculating stereotype of an Asian-American male that we first see.

The other minority character is “Big Sally.”  She is, surprise surprise, domestic help.  Anyone who was here for The Real Help Reading Project will be aware of all the stereotypes surrounding black women domestic workers.  The main one being of course that they’re happy to be the help and will gladly help out white women who are kind to them with their problems.  Kind of the all-knowing wise woman who just so happens to scrub your floors.  I was truly saddened to see Sally show up and play this role to a T.  She overcleans around the white women she doesn’t like to make them feel dirty, but she has no problem stepping right in and fixing everything up for Sophie.  There is a scene that made me cringe where she sits down and has a heart-to-heart with Sophie and basically sorts out all of her life problems.  I know that Trobaugh thought she was writing a positive image of a black woman, but the character is pure stereotype.  She exists to help Sophie and Miss Anne.  She ends up being buddy-buddy with Miss Anne and living with her. In the 1940s and 1950s rural south. Yeah. Right.   I’m not saying there can’t be a black woman character who is domestic help.  That was indeed reality for that historical time period.  But why couldn’t there be a scene where Sally and Mr. Oto talk about being othered in the town?  Where they talk about the dangers to Mr. Oto after Pearl Harbor and how they are similar to some of what Sally has faced as a black woman?  That would have been a truly progressive plot element, and I’m sorry the opportunity wasn’t taken.

Overall then, Trobaugh can indeed write.  The book was highly readable and contains some eloquent passages.  In spite of attempting a progressive message, though, the book falls to the easier method of plugging in a couple of stereotyped, two-dimensional characters.  I hope in future works Trobaugh will put more work into developing truly three-dimensional minority characters. This will strengthen her work and make it more than just a piece of chick lit repeating the same old tropes.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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