Until I saw that an author was speaking at Los Angeles’ Chinese American Museum about her Jamaican-Chinese roots, I wasn’t sold. I received a review-book in the mail but without any rep follow up. I scanned the un-compellingly written promotional one-sheet and put the book in the give-away pile. Then when I heard of the speaking engagement, I retrieved the book and devoured it.
The promotional materials failed to much highlight that the book was by Paula Williams Madison. The Paula Madison who recently retired from NBC as the Executive Vice President of Diversity/Vice President, GE. The Paula Madison who owns the LA Sparks. The Paula Madison who until she retired most did not know she was part Chinese. Those personal bio aspects are pretty important not to shine a spotlight on. Instead of concentrating on my application to the writers programs, more than one of which Madison had a hand in, I bore into Madison’s book, soaring through half of it in one night.
Unlike the poorly written one-sheet, Finding Samuel Lowe is often jaw-dropping in its letting the skeletons stampede out of the closet. Madison doesn’t hold anything back. She details the philandering of her father and the dark abyss of her mother and the violent results when the two were together. Her mother was abused by her grandmother, raped at the age of twelve, and abandoned often by her wayward mother and after the age of nine, completely by her father. And it is the multiple liaisons of her father that sends Williams Madison to be a detective and piece together her history and in some respects, her own identity.
Chinese in Jamaica are not something one normally hears about, but the islands got a steady stream of Chinese immigration beginning in the mid 1800s. Samuel Lowe fathered many children with different women and because Nell, Madison’s mother, was one of his two offspring left in Jamaica while Samuel returned to China with his new wife, the tapestry of her Chinese family was sewn without any connecting thread to those left behind. In fact, Madison lived miles away from relatives whom she never knew existed.
Samuel Lowe fascinates as a figure who constantly reinvented himself whether it be with a country, with a business, or with a woman. Madison plunges readers deep into his world with flowing prose and stitches together an often thrilling ride into the journeys of her grandfather. While Madison delves into the stories of her ancestors, she doesn’t much offer insight on how their rollercoaster lives impacted her career goings-on. Madison did embark in the search for Samuel Lowe after retirement, but connecting some present-day interactions in her own storied career with those of her ancestors would have been equally fascinating.
For me, that lack of connection prevented full appreciation of the book’s third act in which Madison finds a place with her newly found Hakka Chinese family. Instead of reveling in her resolution, I was somewhat removed. But this shouldn’t discount the journey in getting there. Because oh, how mesmerizing it is.
The author also made a documentary in conjunction with the book. That will be screened alongside a talk with Madison and the filmmakers at the Chinese American Museum presentation on May 20. The event is free.
The museum is located at 425 N. Los Angeles St. To reserve your seat, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Finding Samuel Lowe is published by Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.