Laurence Yep

Child of the Owl

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Child of the Owl Summary

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Child of the Owl is a children’s novel by Chinese American author Laurence Yep, first published in 1977 by HarperCollins. It is the seventh book in Yep’s Golden Mountain Chronicles, which chart the experiences of several generations in a Chinese American family, the Youngs, from 19th-century China to late-20th-century America. This installment takes place in 1960s San Francisco and centers on 12-year-old Casey as she goes to live in Chinatown with her traditional grandmother, Paw-Paw. Child of the Owl is appropriate for readers in grades six through eight.

The novel opens with Casey’s father, Barney, lying in a hospital bed, his body bruised and beaten, his arm and leg in a cast, and oxygen tubes coming out of his nose. Muggers attacked him outside of his bookie’s place after he won the jackpot on a horse. Though she hesitates at first, Casey eventually enters the hospital room and talks to her dad. He asks her if she’s mad at him for losing the money in the attack. She assures him she is only angry with the muggers.

This prompts Casey to reflect on her and her father’s money woes. Her mom, Jeannie, died when she was younger, and father and daughter have had to struggle to make ends meet ever since. They move around a lot, and Barney pawns their possessions—including his wedding ring—just so they can survive.

While he’s in the hospital, Casey goes to live with her rich Uncle Phil and his family. They live in the upscale part of town and lead very superficial lives, obsessed with money and material things and status. Their snobbery makes Casey feel inferior. But they also try to micromanage her life while she’s with them, often attempting to silence her outspokenness. Eventually, Uncle Phil cannot handle her, and he feels she is a bad influence on his own snooty daughters. So, he sends Casey to live with her grandmother in Chinatown.

Chinatown is an entirely new experience for Casey. As she and Uncle Phil drive to Paw-Paw’s apartment, the streets become increasingly populated with more and more Asian people—more than Casey’s seen in her whole life. While she knows this should make her feel comfortable, Casey actually feels disconnected, as if she should know more about her cultural heritage and her grandmother’s native language. Casey has always considered herself American, not necessarily Chinese American.

Paw-Paw holds deep ties to her homeland. She is particularly knowledgeable about Chinese mythology. Shortly after Casey’s arrival, Paw-Paw tells her that she, Casey, is a Child of the Owl. Paw-Paw pulls out an old, elaborate necklace comprised of various ornaments that symbolize her family’s history. That history originates with one lone owl, a bird whose own origin story has her sacrifice herself for the welfare of her family before coming to Earth and assuming the form of a human. As a result, all of the women in the family take on the owl’s lonely and solitary nature. At the same time, they also possess the owl’s capacity for intelligence and fortitude. And, some day, the women, like the owl, take flight and go back to their homes in the sky.

This is something to which Casey can relate. Her new school in Chinatown presents some extreme challenges. Because she cannot speak Chinese and has very little knowledge of China, outside of what she’s gleaned from Paw-Paw, the other kids ostracize and bully her. The owl’s loneliness and isolation suddenly make perfect sense to Casey.

Back at Paw-Paw’s apartment, Casey learns more about the history of her family. Much of it is enlightening and gives her a whole new appreciation for her relatives, her heritage, and the struggles her forebears faced. But she also discovers some startling information: her father, Barney, has a very serious gambling addiction. She knew that he gambled, and that their money problems were always directly linked to his habit, but she never knew until now just how dire the situation truly is.

Then, an intruder breaks into Paw-Paw’s apartment and steals her treasured necklace. Casey thinks the culprit is Gilbert, an unkempt teen in the neighborhood who always seems to have access to an inordinate amount of cash. Determined to get the necklace back, Casey switches her energies from learning about her family to retrieving the necklace. But her investigation leads her to another unexpected discovery: Gilbert did not steal the necklace. Barney did. He stole it so he could pawn it and gamble with it.

But Casey has a deeper, even more unsettling realization at the same time. Her home is not with Barney. Perhaps it never was. Her father has a sickness, one that has prevented her from having any sense of a stable or comfortable home life. Though she was living with her father all her life, she was still as lonely and isolated as the owl. Understanding now that she, like all the women in her family, is a Child of the Owl, Casey decides to stay in Chinatown and live with Paw-Paw.