Study Guide

Shirley Temple Wong / Bandit / Sixth Cousin in In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson

By Bette Bao Lord

Shirley Temple Wong / Bandit / Sixth Cousin

We are Family

Shirley starts out as a little kid in Chungking, China. There, she's one of the youngest members of the big Wong clan. Even her name isn't personal—her official moniker is Sixth Cousin, which refers to her place in the family; she's also sometimes called Bandit. She doesn't have much say in what goes on as one of the babies of the family, and no one shows her much respect.

This isn't personal, though, and instead Bandit is part of a traditional Chinese family, in which the oldest relatives run the show. We're told:

Grandmother was the matriarch of the House of Wong. What she ordered was always done. What she said was always so. (1.38)

It isn't a slight to Sixth Cousin that she's never consulted, then, but instead just the way things are handled in her family. Bandit obeys her grandma with no questions because she knows that what the matriarch says goes. This follows even when she goes to America.

Once in America—and now called Shirley—our main girl's still pretty into listening to her mom, who is the matriarch of their family Stateside. But she's now able to make some decisions on her own, too. This ability combined with her new name represents a new individuality for Shirley. In China, it was all about her position in the family; in the U.S., it's all about being her own self. Hello, cultural shifts.

The New Girl

She's new in town, but Shirley doesn't stay that way forever. When she first comes to Brooklyn, Shirley doesn't know how Americans behave, and as a result, she doesn't make friends that easily and feels like an outcast. She doesn't speak English well, doesn't know the stuff Americans love (baseball, anyone?), and hasn't picked up on how people interact with one another non-verbally yet. She's one lonely kid, and she feels pretty awkward:

Carefully she sidestepped the boys who played basketball, the girls who roller-skated, the groups who seemed to laugh or whisper whenever she passed. She dreaded the distance across the school yard. It was endless and full of traps. If a loose ball rolled by, should she catch it? If a girl fell, should she help her up? If someone glanced her way, should she wave? (4.3)

What's a kid to do? Shirley doesn't know how to interact with other people because she isn't yet familiar with how they interact with one another. Not only do they speak the same verbal language, but they also have cultural language—here we can think of social patterns like, say, winking—in common. And Shirley doesn't have any of this. Not yet, anyway.

Old Hat

After Mabel befriends Shirley and brings her into the fold, Shirley's an all-American girl. She becomes the number one Dodgers fan this side of Ebbets Field, so much so that Emily—her new BFF—even declines her chance to give the key of P.S. 8 to Jackie Robinson, instead giving the opportunity to Shirley.

The summer after she arrives in the U.S., Shirley becomes a real American kid of the 1940s. She sticks by the radio to tune into Dodgers games, is dragged into helping her dad clean out the furnace room, and gets her first babysitting job. Now that she's an American, Shirley has opportunities—and gifts—she might not have had at home:

When she opened them again, there stood a giant bed fit for an emperor. Shirley threw herself on the mattress and lolled about like a fish tossed back to the sea. "How did you do it, Father? How?"

But before he could say a word, she shouted, "I know. It's just another wonderful engine made in America." (8.21-22)

Instead of feeling awkward in America at this point, Shirley feels excited about what it can bring her. By the time the next school year rolls around, Shirley's an old veteran of P.S. 8. She's familiar with the way things go around the school and is just one of the gang. She's so comfortable, in fact, that she's able to help the new girl out, a choice that also demonstrates own main girl's compassion. So as the book ends, Shirley's just as at home in Brooklyn as she is in China at the start.

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