I’m always impressed by the different kinds of moods I encounter every time I read a short story by Ken Liu: even though I’ve only sampled a handful of them, each one presented a unique situation, quite unlike the others, a testimony of this author’s wide narrative range.
Young Manoj is a teenager hailing from a war-torn country in the far East: after a number of harrowing experiences in refugee camps, he lands in Boston with the foster family that adopted him more out of expedience than kindness, since a greater number of dependent children meant a speedier process in the UN visa for the USA. Manoj can’t shake the feeling of always being an outsider: his adoptive family treats him well, but through a distance; the questions from school-mates about his origins come more from biased ignorance than a true desire to get to know him: he’s unable to call the place where he’s living, home.
Then one day the city falls prey to a massive snow blizzard, and while everyone is rushing toward the comfort of home, Manoj decides to brave the cold because “suddenly, the people who normally filled these streets, never doubting their right to strut through them, were fleeing as refugees. If he stayed behind, he would, for once, not feel out of place”. It’s a bizarre notion, and one that will swiftly be replaced by fear as snow and an icy wind batter him from all sides: taking refuge in a public transport system station, Manoj will find himself on a very unusual train ride in company of an equally unusual conductor, and learn that there might be a way to battle his isolation and feelings of displacement. As the mysterious Charlie, the Snow Train conductor, will tell him “…everyone leaves a mark on this city, even if they don’t know it, even if they think they’re just passing through, that this isn’t home”.
The best kind of story is the one that makes me think, and this one is no exception: sometimes in these smaller offerings there is much more than the simple sum of their words, which is the main reason I like to take time away from longer works to explore short stories.