Leaving Yesler by Peter Bacho

I just found out that Peter Bacho’s book Leaving Yesler, that I reviewed for the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA student site is going into its second edition after only three months! He’ll be one of the visiting faculty at Whidbey in January 2011. Congratulations Peter! Here’s a reprint of my review. An interview I did with Bacho can be found here as well.

People who read novels know that fiction can sometimes get closer to the truth than facts ever can. For young readers, this is less of a revelation than an expectation.

Leaving Yesler is Seattle author and Evergreen College professor Peter Bacho’s new novel set in 1968 Vietnam-era Seattle about the truths 18-year old Bobby Vicente discovers about his past. What Bobby learns about his past weaves and merges fluidly with his present reality to ultimately shape his future—a forward-looking recipe young readers will take to heart.Bacho is a child of Seattle’s Central District himself, and the majority of his books deal with the Filipino experience in the United States. But Leaving Yesler, due out in late March from Pleasure Boat Studio, is his first foray into writing for young adult readers. The author describes the book as “a Filipino American novel without a Filipino protagonist.”

Leaving Yesler tells the story of Bobby Vincente, a “one drop of black blood Pinoy” looking for a way out of the Yesler Terrace housing project, the only home he’s ever known. Bobby is not the first in his family to want out of Yesler Terrace. It’s the dream as well of his aging father, Antonio, a former prizefighter who settled in Seattle as part of the first wave of Filipino immigration to the city in the late 20s—part of a generation who “hope for the best but get ready for the worst.”

Bobby’s baby steps include passing the GED and making it into community college (also his way of avoiding the draft). What he hasn’t figured into his plan is falling in love with sophisticated, worldly Deena. Nor has he planned on the stirring inside him of the familial allure of boxing, nor his nightly conversations with his dead brother Paulie, killed in Vietnam.

Bobby’s day-to-day world is strictly bounded by the International District—though he admires the Olympic Mountains in the distance, he’s never been there—yet his ordinary life is endowed with a kind of grace. Food and cooking make a lovely appearance as symbols of love for both his father and Deena. Gradually, and with a trust that sometimes comes from strong family ties, Bobby gives himself up to the pull of destiny and comes to perceive a greater, more extraordinary life existing right at his fingertips where “the erasure of the line between life and death becomes as normal as Seattle’s December rain.”

There’s considerable debate these days over what makes a novel fit the Young Adult (YA) genre. At some point, the argument becomes moot. Kids pick up books that interest them regardless of where marketing professionals have placed them in the bookstore. A book’s primary appeal might very well depend simply on the voice—too much filtering through an adult retrospective lens will sink it. Bobby Vicente’s voice—Bacho’s voice—is right on target.

YA novels are steppingstones, not destinations. YA readers study them not to see who they already are, but to discover what kind of adults they may become. InLeaving Yesler, they may discover a way to look back at the same time they look forward, and like Bobby, they may find “lives that, under the circumstances, had been pretty well-lived.”

Peter Bacho is a prolific author and native Seattlelite who currently teaches at Evergreen State College. Two of his books, Cebu (University of Washington Press, 1991) the story of a Filipino American priest who arrives in the Philippines to bury his mother in her homeland, and A Dark Blue Suit (University of Washington Press, 1997) won him American Book Awards. A Dark Blue Suit, a collection of short stories that trace the struggles of the Filipino community of Seattle from its beginnings in the 1920s through to the present, also received the Washington Governor’s Writers Award. His YA novel, Leaving Yesler will be published by Pleasure Boat Studio the end of March, 2010.

2 thoughts on “Leaving Yesler by Peter Bacho

  1. Thanks for posting the links to your review and interview, Sharon! The book sounds fascinating, and I definitely plan to pick it up.


  2. hi sharon – last month seattle picks put yesler on its short list. the list is produced by SPL librarians. given the city’s literary rep, and the central role of the SPL, i’m pleased and honored.


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