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Kelli Estes captures readers immediately with her story, based on actual events that took place on Orcas Island north of Seattlein the late 1800s. It is the story of two strong women faced with hard decisions.
In 1886, 17-year-old Mei Lin is living with her Chinese father and grandmother on the island, although she was born in Seattle. She makes deliveries for her father’s store dressed like a boy, so she can move more freely around town.
In the present time, Inara Erickson, a descendant of one of the first Scottish settlers of the area, has enjoyed many summers in the large house her grandfather built on the island. She has avoided the island for years, because her mother died there after the two had argued about a teenage – now trivial – matter. But now, through the death of her great-aunt, she has inherited the house.
The will stipulates that Inara turn the house into a bed and breakfast, something Inara thinks she cannot do. She has just earned her Master’s in Business Administration degree and has a great job lined up. With a lot of student debt and no money for renovations, she turns to her father, a wealthy Seattle businessman, for help. He gives her money and a strict deadline to complete the conversion of the house into a B&B.
The novel flips back and forth between the two girls. The prejudice against the Chinese in the 1880s was rampant.
They were being torn from their homes and told to go home. Mei Lin and her family were forced onto a steamship sending them back to China.
In the opening scene, her father is standing behind Mei Lin on board the ship telling her she has to jump overboard. When she hesitates, her father pushes her over with tears in his eyes.
Inara and Mei Lin both end up living on Orcas Island, 130 years apart, but their lives area deeply connected. Mei Lin had left behind sleeves from a robe on which she had embroidered her family’s history. When Inara finds the sleeves in her great aunt’s old house, she knows she must find out why they were left behind.
The heartbreak and history stitched into the sleeves make the novel one of the most engaging of the year.