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What I'm Reading

For me, summer reading means escape, largely through fiction that is as unrelated as possible to my scholarly work. Imagine my surprise then when I opened two new novels pulled randomly from the shelves of the Minneapolis Public Library. Both featured main characters who were very much "on the move."

The Glimmer Palace (by Beatrice Colin) and The China Lover (by Ian Buruma) are both works of historical fiction. Both are about the early film industry. And both focus on the lives of movie stars. The Glimmer Palace explores the biography of a fictional film star, Lilly Nelly Aphrodite, in interwar Germany; The China Lover is instead based loosely on a real person--known variously as Ri Koran, Yoshiko Yamaguchi and Shirley Yamaguchi. Of the two, The China Lover is by far the more sophisticated of these two historical novels.

But there was to be no late-summer escapism for me. Film stars, too, I quickly learned, are labor migrants and refugees.

Lilly Nelly Aphrodite's lover, a refugee Russian named Ilya Yurasov, toils in the fictional editing room while Lilly responds to the siren call of Hollywood. (I'll not describe in any detail the improbable plot twists that has her returning again to work for Goebbels but escaping him at the last minute for a boat again sailing west across the Atlantic). The China Lover is actually narrated by several expatriated lovers of film who travel as she also does between Japan, Manchuria, China, Japan, and the United States. With all this moving about, the reader sometimes struggles to keep track of all the shifting identities of the film star and of the star-struck men who work around her in the film industry.

For an historian, reading historical fiction is a busman's holiday. We inevitably look for anachronisms and wonder which bits of historical fiction are actually fictional. For the specialist on migration, I've now concluded, there are no busmen's holidays. Perhaps that's because the lives of the migratory just more interesting than the lives of the sedentary?

Donna Gabaccia, Director, Immigration History Research Center.