In Chia-Chia Lin’s piercing debut novel, The Unpassing, we meet a Taiwanese immigrant family of six struggling to make ends meet on the outskirts of Anchorage, Alaska. The father, hardworking but beaten down, is employed as a plumber and contractor, while the loving, strong-willed, unpredictably emotional mother holds the house together. When ten-year-old Gavin contracts meningitis at school, he falls into a deep, nearly fatal coma. He wakes a week later to learn that his younger sister, Ruby, was infected too. She did not survive.
Routine takes over for the grieving family, with the siblings caring for one another as they befriend the neighbouring children and explore the surrounding woods, while distance grows between the parents as each deals with the loss alone. When the father, increasingly guilt-ridden after Ruby’s death, is sued over an improperly installed water well that gravely harms a little boy, the chaos that follows unearths what really happened to Ruby.
With flowing prose that evokes the terrifying beauty of the Alaskan wilderness, Chia-Chia Lin explores the fallout from the loss of a child and a family’s anguish playing out in a place that doesn’t yet feel like home. Emotionally raw and subtly suspenseful, The Unpassing is a deeply felt family saga that dismisses the myth of the American dream for a harsher, but ultimately profound, reality.
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During an uneventful part of my childhood, my mother walked into the room with a plate of loose washed grapes. She collapsed. Grapes thudded dully on the carpet. One rolled under the couch. The plate lay overturned, and my mother’s body was beside it, limbs splayed.
My sister Pei-Pei and I remained very still. “ Don’t cry,” she whispered to me. But she was the one who was starting to cry. Her bottom lip hung open, and her halting breath slid out. Sunlight glossed the spread of my mother’s hair. I saw veins of red in all that black. I felt a compression of everything I knew to one hard nut. Things ended. You couldn’t stop things from ending.
My mother’s back twitched. Her limbs reordered them-selves; she sat up. “I was testing you,” she said. She was angry. She clawed at the grapes on the carpet, collecting them to be washed again. “Why were you just sitting t here? Why didn’t you call for the ambulance?”
Neither Pei-Pei nor I could say a word.
“You didn’t do anything.” As my mother rose from the floor on a swell of indignation, the plate she held tipped for-ward and back, and grapes rolled right up to the precipice. “What kind of children have I raised? Tell me, do you want to be orphans?”
I wish I’d never felt it, that relief— that total unburdening. My mother had wanted to teach us a lesson; what I’d learned was reversal. Things that had been splintered could be intact again.
Not long after, when we faced events that caused us sorrow, I yearned for that same erasure. Undo this. But although we tried, each in our own way, no one was able to go back even one step.
My father liked to declare that he had moved us to Alaska so we could be closer to the stars.
“And now you’re digging down instead of up,” my mother said.
By day, he drilled water wells. In winter, when the ground froze and cinched tight, he took the odd plumbing job. (“Plumb-ing,” my mother said, “is reaching your hands into other people’s toilets.”)
In late summer or early fall, when the strung- out sun began to set again, we lay out at night and offered ourselves to the hungry sky. If my father had not mown the wild grasses, I would scratch my neck and ears and wrists and, in the dark, think of the smallness of ants.
“What did I tell you?” my father said. “The stars are so close, you can feel their heat.”
Sometimes I thought I could feel it, too, a rope of warmth in the cold air. Other times it seemed nothing at all was close to us, not those pinpricks, not a breath of sentient life. But when we shifted, there was a faint crackling, the grass stirring where we had flattened it, trying to rise back up. Then I felt a surge of hot animal blood and the expansion of my senses. Was this what he meant? I was his son, and for a flaring second I understood him. Something diabolical was about to swoop down from the monochrome sky.
“Did you see that?” he asked.
I squinted straight up at the scattered grains of light.
“A meteor,” he said. “With a tiger’s tail.”
Either my eyes were not fast enough, or he willed those fragments of space debris into being. They flamed with the intensity of his wanting.
“You could not do this in Taiwan,” he said. If you believed him, the stars t here hid themselves out of spite. That junk island. Where you couldn’t find pizza or even a good, thick napkin to wipe your mouth. You couldn’t talk about history. You couldn’t mention certain dates. For a brief time his family had owned land, given by the Japanese and taken away by the Chinese. There was nothing left t here for my father now, no family and no land.
Some nights, when the moon outshone the stars and we couldn’t search for meteors, my father said it was the Trans-Alaska Pipeline that had called to him. That black steel artery in zigzagging across eight hundred miles of shifting permafrost — hot oil over ice. Made by man, like the pyramids. When a single valve popped oﬀ, forty-two thousand gallons leaked out. At Woolworths we met a rig hand who had worked the North Slope. He told us the winds were so muscular, you could unzip your coat, open your arms, and ﬂy.
We had lived brieﬂy in Michigan, but my father had lost his job as a wastewater engineer. He mistimed our move to Southcentral Alaska; we could prove only five months of residency instead of six, and so we missed the first and largest payout from the Permanent Fund. Before Ruby was born, we were a family of five, which would have meant five thousand dollars — one thousand each, even for baby Natty. We could’ve bought an aluminum boat, my mother said. Never mind that the closest water was a spittle creek, and after that, Turnagain Arm and its barricade of mudflats.
Thirty miles outside of Anchorage, our small house sat by itself at the end of a short gravel road. It faced several acres of half-cleared land. To the back and sides were spruce woods that had lived through world wars, the gold rush, homesteading. But in a country where we had no ancestors, in a state only twenty-some years old, the past felt irrelevant to us. Only later would I realize that even our house harbored its own history. There were figure-eight gouges on the kitchen floor where furniture had rolled like marbles during the big quake. Mushrooms sprouted in our bathroom with the seasons, tracking time. They grew from the seam between the floor and wall, and the caps were perfect and unblemished, curving over their stems like modest skirts. The house had been built on the tail end of the World War II boom, part of a subdivision that had never materalized. Wanting nothing to do with it all, the chimney detached itself and crumbled. The wall was patched using cement instead of plaster, so that even after it was painted over, there appeared a permanent, textured shadow, the ghost of the old ﬁreplace. In the woodstove, there was a thick layer of ancient soot.
My father told us that other houses would be built around us, that a small neighborhood street would spring up; we imagined deciduous trees and curbs and tricycles. “When the others move in,” my father used to say, followed by his own vague wishes: the road might be paved, the mailbox might be relocated, the wind might not blow so hard on us. At some point the future ossified, our ghost neighbors vacated, and he talked in should- haves — we should have double- paned the windows, we never should have bought that used dresser, which was how the carpenter ants got in — and my mother was quick to jump on this train, from which she never disembarked. Even three decades later, she suddenly said to me, “Back then we should have planted chokecherry trees to poison the moose.” I couldn’t help but remember how in the summer and fall, the four of us children would press our ﬂat faces to the same window glass that my mother was smacking with her palms, trying to scare the moose away. Once a bull moose spent hours rubbing its mossy antlers against a cluster of young spruces near our house, thrashing the trees silly, and my mother had stood behind the front door with a piece of steel pipe in her hand.
By January Of 1986 we had been following the goings-on of Christa McAuliﬀe for many months, fighting to claim first discovery of the briefest snippets, sharing bits of information as though she had confided in us herself. Her children were six and nine. She felt safer on a space shuttle than driving around New York streets. As a psychological test, she had sat inside a zippered ball in complete darkness; when she got scared, she bit down on her tongue.
The Challenger launch would be broadcast in class. But the day before it happened, I started feeling sick. On the bus ride home, every jostle of the bus twinged my spine. The trees ticked by, scraggly and bare where snow had dropped oﬀ in chunks. The asphalt blurred and liqueﬁed, and even the potholes smeared away. I nodded oﬀ, and when I woke, I felt worse. The bus dumped me at the Qwik Stop. Usually I walked in a trench of snow along the road until I got to our gravel turnoﬀ, but on that day I walked right on the asphalt, and the rare vehicle went around me.
Pei-Pei’s boots were toppled at the bottom of the stairs, a sign she had gone straight to our bedroom, pulled on her head-phones, and made herself deaf to us. I wanted to join her, but the stairs seemed mountainous. Instead I sat in the den with my coat on and leaned against a crate, causing books to slip to the floor. We bought our books at library sales — one crate for one dollar, and we piled those crates high.
The little ones were beside me, drawing on the backs of torn envelopes. “He’s home,” Ruby whispered to Natty, waggling a finger in my direction. In the mornings, she pressed her hand down on the sandwiches Pei-Pei and I made for school. She squashed them ﬂat as punishment for leaving her.
“You,” Natty said.
“No, you,” Ruby said. “You do it.”
They giggled into their fists. Ruby didn’t have much in the way of hair, just some patchy tufts, and she was dressed in Natty’s outgrown overalls. Once in a while my mother slid a barrette in her hair to mark her as a girl, but it never stayed on for long; her hair was too wispy. Side by side, they looked like brothers, four and five years old, small and dark and cagey.
Ruby lunged at me. “I’m going to draw on you,” she hollered. I put my hands up to block her. “ Don’t,” I said. “I don’t feel good.” But she head-butted me and slashed at my face with a crayon.
There was pressure at the center of my skull, deepening. I grabbed hold of her waistband and turned her sideways so she ﬂailed at air instead of me. She was only four, but a few months ago she had broken Natty’s tooth with a stray kick.
“Let her go! You let her go!” Natty slapped at me and hung on to my coat.
I flipped Ruby onto her back and worked a crayon be-tween her lips. “Eat it,” I said. She sputtered, and I used my fingers to shove the crayon in farther. I tried to notch her teeth with wax.
While Ruby squirmed, Natty wrapped his arms around my neck, choking me. Then he was clawing. I had trouble ducking my head away.
“Okay, okay, stop,” I said, holding my hands up and drop-ping the nub of crayon.
Ruby let her head fall back and became so limp she nearly slid oﬀ my lap. It was a sign she was tired, and I liked her best in this state, all droopy and sweet, leaning heavily on me and asking for nothing. Natty slumped on top of us, and we stayed in this pile, heaving in sync, our six legs and six arms twisted together like a boneless creature at the bottom of a sea.
With great effort, I extracted an arm to shield my eyes. The sun was boring through the den window. How could this be? These were the darkest days of the year. It was late afternoon; the sun had retreated. I knew the snow out there was gray. It was melting; craters of dead, matted grass were expanding in the side yard. Where was the brightness coming from? I fell asleep.
When I woke again, I was lying on the sofa by myself, while Pei-Pei sang with the radio. She was doing something with her voice that made it sound like a washing machine.
“Turn oﬀ the light!” I yelled.
Pei-Pei’s singing stopped. “What’d Gavin say?”
My mother: “He didn’t say anything.”
I swallowed, and the spit raked my throat. My eyelids trembled. Light was trying to force its way through. If I opened my eyes, they’d be torched. I tried to sit up, but no part of me moved.
Later someone carried me up the steps, jostling me at the hinges. I didn’t know if it was night or day; my eyelids had fused together. I heard my parents fighting. It was a familiar, comforting sound.
For a while, there was a different bed. Too cool and too quiet. Then I was in my own worn sheets. A crust of sea salt coated my throat, like rocks at the edge of the ocean, pleading for a sip, a cold wash. “It’s over,” Pei-Pei said. I dozed oﬀ, but the thirst stayed with me.
Pei-Pei was the only one home when I woke.
“How are you feeling?” she asked. It was a real question, without sarcasm.
The door was open, but no sounds drifted in from the other parts of the house. From my bed I could see Pei-Pei lying on her stomach, kicking her legs. My pillow obstructed part of my view. Her bare feet swung in and out of my sight.
“What time is it?” I asked.
“One or two.”
She was still in her sleeping clothes, a set of faded blue long johns with sleeves that were too short. The elastic at the wrists was loose. Her long black hair was tied back, and the shorter front pieces were matted to her temples. When I swung my legs out from the covers, I was wearing pants I had never seen before.
“It’s Tuesday,” she added. “You went to the hospital.”
“You’re not in school?”
She didn’t respond. Her legs pedaled the gummy air.
“We have to go,” I said. “They’re showing the launch. Did we miss it already?”
She nodded. “Yeah, it was last week.”
“Everyone died.” She sat up and stared at me, evaluating something in my face.
“What are you talking about?”
“There was a huge cloud of smoke, and then nothing came out of it—no shuttle.”
“What?” I looked around to see if someone, my father or Natty, was laughing at me from the closet. But the door was open, and there were no legs or feet beneath the hanging clothes.
“Believe me. I saw it happen.”
I shook my head, trying to find room for what she was saying.
“There’s something else,” she said. She pushed at a spot on the bridge of her nose. Her face was completely bare and her hair was clawed back. Behind her thick glasses her lashes were sparse, and her eyes were very small and black.
Suddenly I was afraid to look at her face. I tried to smooth the folds in the fitted sheet. It was not my usual one, and the fabric was all twisted and bunched. Later I would discover it was too big for my bed. When I helped my mother change it, we had to shove handfuls of it under the mattress, hiding its excess.
I laughed. I pressed on a wrinkle in the sheet with the heel of my palm, trying to spread it ﬂat.
Pei-Pei took oﬀ her glasses and shook them as though they were filled with dust. “You heard me,” she said, “and I don’t want to say it again.”
“Stop joking,” I said.
“I’m not joking,” she said. “It happened two days ago.”
“How?” I asked. As I said it, I pressed a hand to my throat to stop a noise. There was an expanse between what I was say-ing and what I understood myself to be saying, and the giggle in my chest was trying to morph into something else.
“She got sick. There was an outbreak at school.”
“But she doesn’t even go to school yet.”
“No,” Pei-Pei said. “She doesn’t.”
We stared at each other. Without her glasses on, Pei-Pei’s eyes had expanded. They were not quite black, but the color of winter soil after the snow was scraped away.
Pei-Pei came to my bed. “It’s no one’s fault.”
“Get away,” I said.
She slipped her glasses back on and stood up. She walked to Ruby’s bed, leaned over it, and pulled the blinds up. Light washed over the room; the carpet turned from tan to blond, and the walls glowed. “ We’re having a warm spell,” she said. The faded ﬂoral blooms on Ruby’s sheets were almost translucent as they bore the brunt of all that sun.
I gazed at Ruby’s bed. It was neat; she almost never slept in it. Her pillow was missing, though, and that one small absence made me uneasy.
After Pei-Pei left, I made my way to the window. I sat there trying to adjust my eyes to the light. Outside, at the end of our dirt driveway, were four trash bags, each opaque black and straining with contents I couldn’t fathom. The bags were knot-ted, dimpling on top, leaning on one another. One had fallen on its side. Soon I would find myself searching for things around the house: my backpack, my coat, my shoes. My mug, which I had chipped against Natty’s mug in a test to see whose was stronger. It began to seem that everything I had ever touched was missing. Or at least the things most familiar to me were gone.