This ambitious and successful book profiles an extended Filipino family inching toward prosperity by laboring out of country for years, migrating to do arduous work in harsh places. It’s the opposite of an instant book; it has been cooking for three decades. The chef has combined, in considered proportion, ingredients gathered around the world — revealing family and work scenes set in the Philippines, Oman and Saudi Arabia, aboard wandering cruise ships and deep in the heart of Texas. And right when we’re hungry for them, he serves up telling social and economic digressions that place the family’s struggles in a political and economic context of global migration.
Author Jason DeParle, a New York Times reporter, writes in the prologue to “A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves”: “My own light bulb moment came in learning that remittances — the sums migrants send home — are three times the world’s foreign aid budgets combined. Migration is the world’s largest antipoverty program, a homegrown version of foreign aid.”
This is a huge topic that looms in the lives of his subjects, but it is out of sight for many American readers, some of whom these days are systematically fed disinformation about migrants. DeParle has found a way to humanize and clarify this vast and complicated subject.
In 1987, as a young reporter covering poverty, DeParle sought to stay in a shanty in the muddy Manila neighborhood called Leveriza. A local leader, Tita Portagana Comodas, who scrubbed and cooked all day for her sprawling family, took him in. She also bought a few thousand eggs every week to resell in the neighborhood food co-op, and “stacked them under a kitchen light to protect them from the rats,” DeParle writes. “In the post-Marcos Philippines, her hopes and the country’s were equally fragile.”
Tita’s husband and many other relatives had gone off, working abroad for years at a stretch and sending sustaining checks home.
The remittance checks got members of the Portagana family by — and in the course of the book, staked some members’ successful struggles toward solvency. Nationally, these remittance funds kept the poor from hunger and exported potential activists, blunting political trouble, aiding a dictatorship in Manila that fiercely protected the export of labor. Far across the Pacific, the jobs that paid poorly by our standards drew often undocumented workers, suppressing American wages. Solving the equations for who gains and who pays a price is complicated. DeParle is our Virgil on a tour of this harsh, globally interdependent, paradox-filled system of exploitation and hope.
Readers will likely be pleased when DeParle’s main character, Rosalie (Tita’s youngest child), by dint of her dogged responsibility, blindered determination and deep kindness, finally, after decades of exhausting struggle, trailed by kids and a pokey husband, and all the while ceaselessly sending check after check back home, finally passes nursing and English exams and immigrates to work as a nurse in Texas.
While we enjoy Rosalie’s success, we are likely also to feel the frustration and despair that come with comprehending systemic problems that seem intractable and almost too diffuse to reform.
DeParle has a frank, amiable and plain-spoken virtuosity as a writer, twice has almost won the Pulitzer and has won Polk and Livingston awards. “A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves” deserves a place on the same high shelf as Kate Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” and David Finkel’s “The Good Soldiers” — recent books that enrapture readers with moving narrative while elegantly elucidating deep, humane and informed understandings of poverty and conflict. These books represent the highest and most powerful use of the oft-read but rarely identified genre of narrative journalism.
Mark Kramer has been writer-in-residence at Smith College, Boston University and the Nieman Program on Narrative Journalism at Harvard. He has helped found ongoing narrative journalism conferences in Boston, London, Amsterdam and Bergen, Norway.
A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves
By: Jason DeParle.
Publisher: Viking, 382 pages, $28.