“The Emperor of Shoes” by Spence Wise— Jewish in China

Wise, Spence. “The Emperor of Shoes”, Hanover Square Press, 2018.

Jewish in China

Amos Lassen

Alex Cohen is a twenty-six-year-old Jewish Bostonian who is living in southern China where his father runs their family-owned shoe factory. Alex against his own best wishes takes over the company and soon realizes that his employees are exploited, regulatory systems are corrupt and Alex’s own father is involved in bribes to protect the business. When Alex discovers this, he understands that his father isn’t the man he thought he was. He becomes involved with Ivy, a worker who works his way into Alex’s heart and head.

The novel is written in the tradition of many other Jewish coming-of-age stories. Alex is placed on the fault line between his father, a not particularly scrupulous businessman, and Ivy, a factory worker who is both a love interest for Alex and a mouthpiece for the dissonant movement that upends his sense of morality. Alex is forced to question if one should “honor thy father” if he runs a sweatshop. We become very aware of the conflict between the individual and society. has the potential to heighten both. Alex’s feeling are out of place both physically and emotionally and he is forced to think about place from different angles than one otherwise might do. The setting the story is during a period of labor unrest and the book focuses on the relationship between politics and emotion. By juxtaposing this particularly Jewish coming-of-age story to China, Alex is forced to ask what it means to be Jewish while separated from his home and community in Boston. It is easy for a character like Alex who was raised in established Jewish American communities to lose sight of it. Alex tries to understand his Jewish identity at the same time he adapts to living in another country.

When Alex meets a seamstress named Ivy, his sympathies begin to shift. She is an embedded organizer of a pro-democratic Chinese party, secretly sowing dissonance among her fellow laborers. Alex must decide if he will remain loyal to his father and his heritage or join the revolution with Ivy.

We read about idealism, ambition, father-son rivalry and cultural revolution all set against the backdrop of social and technological change. We see not only the dangers and exploitations of his father’s system but as well as the hopes, dreams and delicate relationships that make it work and that must be risked if change is possible.

This is a funny and illuminating novel about an American father and son and a shoe factory in China. It is heartbreakingly personal, timely and political, written with unforgettable characters and dire circumstances.

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