1938 China, Meilin flees the encroaching Japanese with her son and a beautiful scroll embellished with stories, which was a gift from her beloved husband. On the road, sometimes with her brother in law and his wife and daughters, she reads the stories to her son to help him keep his courage. Over the course of the book, Meilin’s son grows up and eventually studies in America, the book covering three generations of Meilin’s family.
The title of the book comes from one of the stories on the scroll, and these stories were a lovely part of this book. Meilin uses them to distract her son and comfort him, and helps her and us, the reader, find meaning and hope in the events of the story. I really liked when these were used and how they added to the story as a whole, and how characters thought back on them later on. The scroll is a beautiful motif and symbol in this book.
One of the themes of this book is war. I find books about war, and also about modern Chinese history actually, that focus on women or the people who stay behind really interesting. It’s how life on the ground goes on, how the world keeps turning in spite of seeming like it’s ending that’s so intriguing. The first parts of this book are about that, with Meilin trying to keep her son and herself alive, and the way that their life and their country changes, sometimes very swiftly. The story then goes on to how the political climate changes, after the war, and the family must survive those shifts and changes too. Even when Renshu, Meilin’s son, is living in America later in the book, he can’t leave the war behind and he can’t escape China.
Meilin is a wonderful character. She’s wise and calm, and just keeps going and finding a way in the face of every road block. I kept worrying about what was going to happen to her, and I loved how her kindness saved her. She often is able to make friends and give and receive support, which helps her find a way through various difficulties. And I loved her bond with her son, it’s beautiful. I also liked the way that Renshu was written, from a boy to a student, a father and beyond. He goes from being Renshu in China to Henry in America, and we are shown his shift in identity and how he’s changed by living in a new country. I thought this was really well written. The characters are really full and real in this book. No one is there just to make a point, and there were times, like the way Henry and his wife are written, where you can really see them as both being right, both coming from a very real place and experience, even while having opposing views. I enjoyed all the different people in this book a lot, even the ones I didn’t actually like, because they felt like very real.
This is a really good book. There’s beautiful moments and tragic ones. Vulnerability and enduring strength. The home of our birth and the home and family we choose for ourselves. There’s survival, struggle, but also hope and love. It’s a full, rich story, a journey, and full of heart and full of realistic characters.
Read It If: you love family sagas, books about modern China or the immigrant experience, or a tough female lead. This is a lovely story and feels very heartfelt.
Thank you to Hachette Canada for the copy of this book for review.