Digging to America by Anne Tyler

Jul 13, 2012

The families of Bitsy and Brad Dickinson-Donaldson and Sami and Ziba Yazdan converge at the Baltimore airport on August 15, 1997.  What brings them together is the arrival of two adopted girls from Korea.  The large, loud, festive Dickinson-Donaldson clan, wearing buttons that proudly display their status—“Mom,” “Dad,” “Grandpa,” etc.—are handed Jin-Ho by the adoption agent.  They keep her Korean name and spend her first few years trying not to Americanize her too much, keeping her bowl hair cut, dressing her in scratchy native costumes, and reminding her constantly of her heritage.  Until Jin-Ho is old enough to dress herself and assert herself, announcing that she prefers to go by “Jo.” 

Sami and Ziba, patiently waiting in their quiet corner of the airport with Sami’s Iranian-American mother, Maryam, are handed Sooki.  Immigrants and first generation Americans themselves, they immediately change “Sooki” to the more American sounding Susan.  They encourage their daughter’s assimilation by dressing her in jeans, letting her drink soda, and sending her to preschool.

Despite their differences, the Yazdans agree to take part in Bitsy’s idea of an annual “Arrival Day” party.  Each year as more extended family is invited to the celebration it becomes more of a mix of Korean, Iranian, and American foods and culture.  As time passes the families become intertwined.  After Bitsy’s laid-back dad Dave loses his wife to cancer, he begins to fall in love with Sami’s reserved, regal, immigrant mother Maryam. 

Widowed before she was forty, at first Maryam rejects Dave’s advances.  Her deceased husband was a progressive, intellectual Iranian man whom she followed to America when she was only nineteen.  Now she likes her quiet, solitary life.  She simply can’t imagine herself with anyone else.  Especially a brash American.  By the end of the novel the Dickinson-Donaldsons have worked their charm on Maryam.  She finds that despite her best efforts, she is unable to escape their embrace.

Digging to America is a beautifully written reflection on how adoption feels—whether adopting a new family member or a new country—from each individual touched by the group experience.  Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in foreign adoption, immigration, or a finely crafted character study that celebrates the quirks of family life.

Reviewed by Becky C.
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