It’s one of the contradictions of humanity that we long for a sense of belonging, yet value our individuality. Anne Tyler’s Digging to America presents this contradiction through the intertwined lives of two families bonded first by coincidence, then by choice.
Brash Americans Bitsy and Brad Donaldson, and Iranian-Americans Sami and Zeba Yazdan, meet at the Baltimore airport, waiting for the arrival of their adopted daughters from Korea. While the Yazdans quietly wait with Sami’s mother Maryam, the Donaldsons’ friends and family have turned the arrival gate into a party, one that encompasses the Yazdans once they realize their common purpose. When Bitsy invites them to the first of what will become an annual Arrival Party, these celebrations of the day the girls entered their lives become the tentpole that holds up an unlikely friendship.
The book explores adoption not just of children, but of countries and cultures. The Yazdans appear to simultaneously strive to be more American than the Americans, yet value their own culture above that of their adoptive country’s, or in Sami’s case, of the country in which he was born. At one point, he scoffs: “Doesn’t it strike you all as quintessentially American that the Donaldsons think the day their daughter came to this country was more important than the day she was born?”
His mother Maryam left her native country so many years ago that she would be an outsider there, and yet is obviously a foreigner in her adopted country, with an accent and traditions that set her apart. She is both dismayed at reminders of her foreignness and standoffish in the face of the warm, blustery American-ness of the Donaldsons – particularly when Bitsy’s widowed father, Dave, begins an awkward courtship.
In turn, the Donaldsons are simultaneously critical of the Yazdans’ differences and fascinated by their exoticism. Bitsy preserves baby Jin-Ho’s Korean name, the haircut she arrived with, and the clothes of her homeland, and makes pointed remarks about the Yazdans’ decision to rename their baby Susan, among other parenting decisions she disapproves of.
The novel dips in and out of the various characters’ lives, with chapters written from the perspective of Maryam, Bitsy, Dave, and even little Jin-Ho, exploring misperceptions they have of each other under the surface affection and, sometimes, annoyance.
Tyler treats all her characters, even when they are irritating and wrong-headed, with respect and wamth, and Digging to America thankfully doesn’t lapse into a morality tale of acceptance or assimilation. Her characters are convincingly real, never functioning simply as sides of an issue. Tyler, whose late husband was Iranian-born psychiatrist and novelist Taghi Modarressi, brings equally intricate detail to her portrayal of the extended Yazdan family as to the Baltimore born-and-bred characters that populate most of her books.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Breathing Lessons and The Accidental Tourist is a master at bringing to life the inner lives of her characters. Tyler has the Jane Austen-ish ability to create an intimate portrayal of the domestic that acts as a broader comment on the society of her time. Like her previous 16 novels, Digging to America is a deceptively light read, profound in its emotions and observations and enlivened by sly humour.