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King of the Armadillos


King of the Armadillos

It is 1954. Victor Chin, a teenage Chinese immigrant who already has started over once in his life, is about to be forced to do so again. He has skin lesions and pain in his hands, and his father’s mistress Ruth has insisted that they see a Western doctor. When Hansen’s disease is the diagnosis, the family has little choice. Ruth points out, “If he gets the operation here, you’ll have to pay for it yourself. But Carville is run by the government, so everything there is free.” A government nurse escorts Victor on the train from his home in the Bronx to the Carville National Leprosarium, a federal institution in Louisiana for the treatment of Hansen’s disease, also known as leprosy.

"KING OF THE ARMADILLOS offers a window into a world I didn’t know existed, with relatable characters and a nuanced plot."

Carville is totally foreign to city boy Victor, with its southern architecture, its wide open lawns and trees, and its dorms. In the cab ride from the train station, he can smell the Mississippi River behind its levee. We follow him through his initial exams, performed by efficient, occasionally kind nuns. He is admitted to the infirmary immediately, and Dr. Behr soon performs an operation on the nerves in his forearms. Only when he recovers sufficiently from that is he assigned to his dorm --- a Chinese dorm --- where he meets Donny, a rich, handsome American-born kid whose only symptom is a limp.

As he settles into life at Carville, going to high school and making friends, Victor has to admit that he has some advantages here that he never would have had in New York. As the son of a laundry owner who lives in the back of his shop, money is always tight. For one thing, he has his own room. He also has the opportunity to nurture his musical side.

Piano lessons are prescribed to strengthen Victor’s hands after the operation, and he’s an avid and grateful student to Mrs. Thorne. He soon masters the basics and plays well enough to begin to feel the music. As time goes on, he finds a mentor who exposes him to jazz, and he enjoys playing with melodies: “He knew he was gaining control of what he wanted to say and how to say it in that wordless sea of sound, and as he lost himself like he always did when the music swept him away, he was finding something at the same time.” He plays for himself, but an added benefit is impressing his crush, Judy. The fact that she’s going with Donny doesn’t keep Victor from wanting her.

When the reader is fully ensconced in Victor’s story, Wendy Chin-Tanner widens the lens to his family. Sam, Victor’s father who came to America at a young age, established a laundry and sent money back home to his wife and two sons until he could bring them back to America with him, leaving his wife to care for her mother-in-law as was customary. Henry, Victor’s older brother, scorns Ruth for her relationship with his father and is opposed to Victor going to Carville in the first place: “Believe me, they’d send you back [to China] if they could. But keeping you there is the next best thing. Just like they put Japanese people in those camps.” And Ruth is the Jewish secretary who fell in love with Sam, discounting the wife so far away in China.

KING OF THE ARMADILLOS offers a window into a world I didn’t know existed, with relatable characters and a nuanced plot. Tanner-Chin is a poet, and we feel that in her prose: “Fatigue weighed him down like a rain-soaked blanket.” The foreword to the novel informs us that much of the story is based on her father’s experience at Carville, which shows in her deft sympathy for the characters. As readers, we feel that sympathy as well, and it makes for an engrossing, enjoyable read.

Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on August 25, 2023

King of the Armadillos
by Wendy Chin-Tanner

  • Publication Date: July 25, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Flatiron Books
  • ISBN-10: 1250843006
  • ISBN-13: 9781250843005