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Bookmarks Issue: 
43-Nov-Dec-2009
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An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream

A-The SnakeheadPatrick Radden Keefe is the author of Chatter: Dispatches from the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping ( 3.5 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2005). He is also a frequent contributor to the New Yorker, Slate, World Policy Journal, and the Boston Globe.

The Topic: On June 6, 1993, the Golden Venture, a rusted freighter carrying 300 illegal immigrants, ran aground off Long Island’s Rockaway Peninsula. When police arrived at the scene, they witnessed panicked and undernourished men jumping into the water, desperate to reach land and the American Dream. Keefe recounts that harrowing event, which he uses to highlight the wave of Chinese immigrants from Fujian province, their "shadow" economy, and key flaws in U.S. immigration policy. Among other colorful, disreputable characters, Keefe’s multilayered narrative also explores the life of the notorious snakehead Sister Ping, an unassuming grandmother who rose to become the mastermind behind Chinatown’s multimillion dollar human-trafficking empire.
Doubleday. 414 pages. $27.50. ISBN: 9780385521307

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"It’s a rich, beautifully told story, so suspenseful and with so many unexpected twists that in places it reads like a John le Carré novel. … This is one of the freshest accounts of modern-day migration I’ve read, one filled with moral ambiguity, one that doesn’t pretend to have the answers, one that in these times feels like essential reading." Alex Kotlowitz

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"[Keefe] tells this story with a masterful fluidity, shifting among multiple characters—gangsters at shootouts, passengers fishing off the drifting freighter, maneuvering politicians—all backed up in pages of meticulous citations. … [H]e approaches the complexity of immigration with nuance and sensitivity." Michael Kroner

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[A] brilliant account of illegal immigration. … Keefe’s mastery of this chapter of our ongoing immigration saga is impressive." Seth Faison

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[A] formidably well-researched book that is as much a paean to its author’s industriousness as it is a chronicle of crime. … [I]t illustrates beautifully how oddly politics can evolve." Janet Maslin

USA Today 3.5 of 5 Stars
"More an eye-opener than a page-turner, the book reads like the investigative reporting it is. … Keefe maintains a commendable fairness and objectivity reporting a fascinating story." Don Oldenburg

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"The book’s subtitle proposes a compact that its author cannot keep. It promises a work about both the Chinatown underworld and the American dream. On the first topic, Keefe absolutely excels. On the second, he fails." Samuel G. Freedman

Critical Summary

Keefe has written an impeccably researched account of human traffickers and inconsistent U.S. immigration policy. Critics marveled at his skill in weaving multiple, complex plots into one highly articulate narrative and described him as "a masterful storyteller with the keen eye of a seasoned reporter" (Washington Post). The New York Times Book Review was an exception, noting that Keefe struggled to depict illegal immigrants as "three-dimensional individuals," and USA Today felt that the background research at times impeded the "mystery-thriller story line." Still, critics enjoyed Snakehead and considered it an important work for those interested in international policy or global crime sagas. Or both.