JoAnn Levy

"Daughter of Joy"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark NOV 14, 1999)

"You know nothing!" - Ah Toy's response

Daughter of Joy by JoAnn Levy

During the voyage from Hong Kong to San Francisco, Ah Toy wakes up to find the body laying next to her lifelessly rolling with the seas. This is Wang Po, her master, who has taken her aboard the ship dressed as a boy so that he can sell her in America. And now he is dead. Ah Toy's life has known fear, hunger and several masters, but never before did she wonder who might own her. Fellow shipmate and scholar, Li Jin, assures her that the "high man" in San Francisco will know the answer to her dilemma. But once they are in San Francisco and Ah Toy is introduced to the "high man," Norman As-sing, she refuses to acknowledge his position. She knows what a high man looks like and this "cake seller" is no high man. By not recognizing As-sing as a high man, she has made this self-important man her enemy for life. And Ah Toy has taken the first steps to being a free and independent American woman.

In Daughter of Joy, we watch Ah Toy manage in this new country. The basic Chinese belief that she operates from is that she should be subservient to a master and to this end she decides that Li Jin is her fate. Through a turn of events she begins to put together a rather significant dowry to present to him. In China, prostitution is a profession not a disgrace and since Ah Toy spent some of her childhood with her mother on Willow Lane, she learned the secrets of the "mists and flower" girls. Of course Li Jin is not around as she puts together this dowry since he too is on As-sing's bad side for having introduced him her to him in the first place. For the shame and embarrassment he caused, As-sing sends Li Jin away. The inner strength that Ah Toy needs to survive also shapes the events and of her life. Ah Toy is a very likable person, struggling with Chinese beliefs but willing to accept the ways of a new land. Although it is the ending that I would have chosen for her, it still surprised me.

In real life little is known about Ah Toy beyond her few years as a wealthy courtesan in San Francisco and that she was an extremely attractive and charming Chinese girl, select in her associates and dressed in the "most flashing European and American style." Norman As-sing's history is also sketchy, but most certainly he had attained a position of power in California (based on money and influence) that would have been unimaginable for him to hold in China given that his station in life was no higher than Ah Toy. But Ah Toy has one advantage, she learns the American judicial system and finds that it can work in her favor. From these few historical facts that Ms. Levy digs up combined with her expertise on California Gold Rush years and her research into Chinese beliefs, she conjures up an entirely enjoyable novel.

Levy is especially skilled at coloring late 1840s streets of San Francisco so that you see the pandemonium, the nations of men and women, the mud on the streets, the temporary shacks and the rough store fronts. She tells us about a town that burns to the ground and turns around to construct itself just to burn to the ground again and again. This is the start of China town. This is when California is admitted to the Union. And on the dark side, this is a town with a very seedy population, where a self-appointed vigilante committee publicly hangs criminals and the Chinese Triad society never lets the Chinese men forget their past. If nothing else, this is a story of the Chinese immigrating to America and their attempts at blending their customs and beliefs within a new society. Levy takes us to the world of Chinese fortune tellers, funerals, and weddings. She shows the importance of the Chinese in America but not without exposing the fear and hatred that all new immigrants face in a new country.

JoAnn Levy has written a wild west fictional tale based on mostly fact, without once losing sight of the qualities that make good fiction.

  • Amazon reader rating: from 9 reviews


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About the Author:


JoAnn LevyJoAnn Levy has been writing western history for nearly twenty years and is the recognized authority on women in the gold rush, whom she research for nearly a decade. She appeared in the PBS documentary, "Secrets of the Gold Rush", in the A&E series, "The Real West", in the prize-wining PBS documentary, "The Gold Rush", and the four hour A& E documentary, "California and the Dream Seekers". Daugher of Joy won JoAnn Levy the 1999 Willa Award for best historical fiction and For California's Gold won her the 2001 Willa Award for the same category.

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