Meimei is the narrator and pint-sized hero of the story. We follow her from age six until age nine as she begins and ends her chess journey. Despite the fact that Waverly can't find an opponent who can beat her at chess, she has a bigger and scarier opponent closer to home—her mom.
When it comes down to it, we don't know much about Waverly the person. This is because it's actually hard to tell what qualities are hers and what qualities are the influence of Mommy Dearest. For example, we know Waverly possesses an invisible strength that allows her to face up to much older and bigger opponents and beat them. Turns out it's her Mom who taught her to be strong, as Waverly flat-out tells us: "I was six when my mother taught me the art of invisible strength" (1). Mom's not pumping iron, but she's no pushover either.
We also know that Waverly and her mom have their own tug of war that takes place every day. Waverly tells us that "Each morning before school, my mother would twist and yank on my thick black hair until she had formed two tightly wound pigtails" (9). Ouch. Follicular agony aside, Waverly's hair totally points back to the battle of the wills that's happening in the Jong household. Looks like Mom's going to make sure that Waverly conforms… or else.
Waverly soaks up Mom's character traits whether she wants to or not. Her mom's influence sets the story's conflict into motion, since Waverly isn't entirely down with Mom's grand plan and eventually starts fighting back. The climax of the story occurs when Waverly finally freaks out at her mother and quasi-destroys her universe. As bad as it sounds, we can totally see the confrontation coming. After all, if Mom wasn't slowly warping Waverly into her very own mini-me, there wouldn't be much of a story.
At the same time, there's plenty about Waverly that smacks of a normal childhood. She digs candy, for starters. Specifically, "a twelve-pack of Life Savers" that she spends "the rest of the party arranging and rearranging […] in the order of my favorites" (15). That's pretty standard kid stuff.
So are the wild imaginings Waverly and her brothers get into, like the door in their alley marked "Tradesmen," where they "believed the bad people emerged from" (8) at night. And there's some general bits of little-girl mischief, like when the photographer "asked me what they served, I shouted, 'Guts and duck's feet and octopus gizzards!' Then I ran off with my friends, shrieking with laughter as we scampered across the alley" (8). Classic kid ruse.
So while Waverly definitely gets some of her behavior from Mom, she's also a typical kid—at least at first. As the story unfolds, the question becomes how much Waverly is responsible for her identity and how much she can truly blame on her mom. There is no ready answer, though perhaps later in the book the picture develops more clearly.
Above all, Waverly loves chess. Luckily, she's also really good at it. In her own words, she says, "by my ninth birthday, I was a national chess champion" (48). But Mom gets involved in that, too, and turns smothering into its own artform:
My mother had a habit of standing over me while I plotted out my games. I think she thought of herself as my protective ally. Her lips would be sealed tight, and after each move I made, a soft "Hmmmmph" would escape from her nose. (52)
Waverly's talent proves to be a double-edged sword. Being awesome at the game gets her out of household chores—"'Why does she get to play and we do all the work,' complained Vincent" (47)—and it also gets her a private bedroom in a teeny tiny apartment while "my brothers slept in a bed in the living room facing the street" (54). Definite perks, we'd say.
But as Waverly learns, these perks aren't free. She has to give up playing and being a regular kid. Also, her mom stresses her out to the point that she screams at her and seriously damages their relationship. Waverly's love for chess becomes something of a trap, sending her careening into her mother's will much sooner than she can handle. So in the end, we can see that what Waverly gains from chess may not be as great as what she loses. But with a mother like hers, we're also not sure Waverly has much choice.