Friday, January 23, 2015

The Distant Land of My Father

Book: The Distant Land of My Father
Author:Bo Caldwell
Edition: _2001 Hardback from Fresno County Public Library
Read: January 23, 2015
373 pages
Rated: 4 out of 5

Anna is born in China, probably Shanghai and lives her first several years there. Her father is in love with the city and exposes her to the wonders of it. As World War II approaches, her mother takes her away, back to Pasadena and her family. Anna's father finds excuses to stay and is captured by the Japanese and held through internment. When he is repatriated, he finds a way to go back. After the war, he stays. Anna and her mother come back, but find out about her father's infidelities. They return and Anna is estranged from her father. The communists take over China and the father is held again as a prisoner. Several years later he is released and lives in Southern California, apart from his wife and daughter. After Anna's mother dies, he becomes part of her life again until he dies. At this point Anna realizes how what her father is like. There is at the end, a reconciliation of sorts.

But the real story is Anna's emotions as she goes through all of this. Her love for her father. The hurt she feels from his infidelity. The a-loneness she feels by not having him around. The melancholy once he is gone.

Landmarks. (8) In the story, this is the contrast between parents. The father knows the city; the mother uses a set of familiar places to get her bearings. This is sort of symbolic of their relationship withe city. Joesph isn't in love with it, the mother tolerates it and is glad to leave. How do you find the things in your life? Also the grandmother tells her to look for the Tarzan Tree-an oak growing on a corner. That way Anna will know her Grandmother is close.

Father is a fix it man. (8)

Where did Joseph get his easy charm? From living in China? From his Nazarenne missionary parents? Just a natural characteristic of him?

Caldwell gives a few subtle, hints to the reader about Joseph's infidelity. At the beginning of the story, he is asked what keeps him in Shanghai. He turns red, but replies business. The turning red says there is something more than just business. Our guilt will find us out. But there was also the caring for his family. While being interned in a Japanese camp, it was a picture of his wife and Anna is what he would turn to.

Caldwell also talks about the blindness which greed will cause. When foreigners were vacating Shanghai, Joseph Schoene could see nothing but the money he was making. He would rather make his money than return to the States to be with his wife and child.  The same can be said about comfort. When we are comfortable, we become like an ostrich and stick our heads in the sand. He realizes this once the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. But makes the same mistake after the war.

During World War II, Allied citizens were repatriated. in the story, the first wave were embassy personnel and essentials. But then two years later other Allied citizens were done. About the same time which I was reading this book, NPR had a story on repatriation. It basically said that not all of the Japanese who were swapped wanted to go back to Japan. Not only did they not want to go back, but some had never been to Japan and were American born.

There is some items Caldwell seems to fixate on, such as teak wood and Morris chairs.

When you read about the punishments which Caldwell describes the Japanese used on Joseph, you realize they are not too different than what Americans used on the Taliban and Iraqs. Water torture, beatings, sleep deprivation. Did we use any of these on either Japanese prisoners or internees?

I like the description of Eve and Joseph's reading habits. Eve is to read immediately and then get rid of the magazine. Keep the house from being cluttered. But Joseph is described as a reader, but it was never just one book. (187) He leaves books around wherever he is. The sad thing is tht because of his internment, he cannot concentrate and may not finish or remember a book.

What makes us content? Anna describes it as not just happy, but something deeper, quieter, as though the three of us had finally landed. (200) This is in  a section where she and her father is working on the backyard. she hears the clinking of ice in a glass and her mother moving inside. Sounds give us the cues we need to know that all is well. Of course, all of this contentment is broken the next moment when her father announces that he is being sent to China as a liasion between Chinese and American forces.

Some books start with a bang and end in a whimper. This book starts slowly, enough so, I was wondering if it would be worth reading. But I was reading it for my book group, so I preserved and found my reward. So gentle readers, continue on through the first part, it lays the ground work for the story to come. Caldwell has done her research and as such, has laid a foundation for the details of her story. The details is what draws the reader into Anna's world.

Caldwell talks about a child growing up in China, Shanghai to be more exact. She and her mother left before the World War II invasion by the Japanese. The father stayed to look after business interests and paid the price by being imprisoned. He was not content with staying around Pasadena after the war, so he found a way to become a liaison between the Americans and Chinese forces. Then landing in Shanghai at the end of the war. The daughter found he was not the perfect father as a growing daughter will discover and becomes estranged from him, staying with her mother. When the Communists take over China, the father is captured and imprisoned again for several years. He is expelled from China. But this is not feel good story of Father-daughter-wife reunion, but the story of a long, coming together.

The real storyline is the story of a daughters love, the hurt of betrayal and the eventual forgiveness and reconciliation. The story is told well, making the reader understand the daughter's hurt and why she cannot forgive, until she see's the father as a broken man, the way her mother saw him.

There are under-currents in the book as well. Things like the greed of capitalism, the culture of China, and love destroyed. Particularly the background on China is done well. Caldwell has done her research and brings you into the the China of the 1930's, even though at times she gets a bit fixated on things like teak wood and Morris chairs. Still, stick with the book and it will stick with you.

Notes from my book group:

Reading Group Guide

1. What kinds and what degrees of actual and imagined disloyalty, from the political to the personal, occur in the novel? What kinds and what degrees of actual and imagined betrayal? What does the author appear to be saying about disloyalty and betrayal, and about the possibilities of reconciliation and forgiveness?

2. Anna says of her father, "I had a landmark of my own, a place I always started from to get wherever I was going, a reference point for everything I did." (8) What are the advantages and disadvantages of making one person such a landmark in one's life? What burdens might it place upon that other person, and what dangers might it pose for oneself?

3. After Joseph's kidnapping, Anna's mother tells her, "Your father is somewhat unpredictable. . . . He has strong ideas and people don't always agree with those ideas, and he does what he wants, whether people like it or not. And sometimes it gets him into trouble." (48) What does get Joseph Schoene into trouble, and how? What are the consequences of his doing what he wants? To what extent is he irresponsible in not thinking through the impact of his actions?

4. In what ways might the contrast between the street scenes during the Battle of Shanghai and the reception at the Cercle Sportif emphasize the perennial differences between the haves and the have-nots of this world? What other manifestations of this theme occur in the novel? What contemporary or historical parallels might there be with the attitude of the European and American businessmen and the wealthy Chinese in 1937 Shanghai?

5. What notion and what actuality of home are cherished by each of the Schoenes and the other importantcharacters? How might we explain the differences or attitude and perception among them and the consequences of those differences? How would you define home?

6. Anna says of her father's refusal to leave Shanghai, "There was too much money to be made, too much opportunity, to just walk away." (133) What are the personal, social, political, and moral consequences of basing one's decisions, values, and actions solely on business and money-making opportunities?

7. "We were both so good at catering to him, at revolving around him," Anna says of her and her mother's relationship to Joseph. (203) What model of family life does Caldwell present? Is it a model with which you are familiar? Is it a model that seems widespread in the United States today?

8. After Joseph's "breezy" telegram arrives from Shanghai at the end of September 1945, Anna's grandmother tells her: "Your father is a difficult man. I'm sure he has his good side, and I suspect his heart is sometimes in the right place. But his intentions never become actions . . . It's not a question of love. It's a question of who he is, and what he wants." (216) Do these statements and the observations that follow constitute an accurate assessment of Joseph Schoene and his behavior? Is it, with him, never a question of love? To what extent is it true that "he has no vision . . . and always will be an opportunist"? (216)

9. What specific capabilities make Genevieve "a master of adaptability" and self-transformation (249) How would you describe Joseph Schoene's skills at adapting? What adaptations and self-transformations does each undertake? What incidents show most dramatically or most convincingly the rea circumstances, and consequences-and the limitations-of their adaptive powers? How and why do others undergo transformations? With what results?

10. "Anything is possible in these times. There is no limit to what is now possible," says the Russian trustee, Nikolai Petrovich, in Ward Road Jail. (280) In addition to his most immediate reference, what are the possible implications of his statement in the world of the jail and the world of the second half of the twentieth century? What personal implications might the statement have for Joseph Schoene? What limits disappear within the time scope of the novel?

11. What kinds of love occur in The Distant Land of My Father? Between or among whom? From what circumstances do these loves spring, what circumstances nourish some of them, and what circumstances jeopardize or destroy others?

12. Two of the old Chinese cook Chu Shih's sayings have later resonance in the novel: Hsin chong yu shei, shei chiu p'iaoliang and His hua hua chiehkuo, ai liu liu ch-ĂȘngyin. The first-"Whoever is in your heart is beautiful"-is repeated to Anna by her dying mother as the basis for forgiving her father. Joseph quotes the second-"Love and attention make all things grow"-as he works in the South Pasadena garden. How do these two Shanghai adages apply to each main character and the characters' interrelationships? In what ways might they apply to the novel overall? What instances of unusual love, attention, beauty, and growth are there in the novel, and what instances of their opposites?

13. Anna recalls that, listening to Dr. Pearson's explanation of Joseph's death, "I wanted causes and events, reasons why, a sense of order." (350) To what might these three desires motivate all the characters? The author herself? All of us?

14. What does Joseph Schoene's final residence, its furnishings and appliances, the books it contains, and its "decorations" reveal about his life and his character?

Published by Harcourt, Inc.

New Words:
  • Cheongsam (3): a body-hugging one-piece Chinese dress for women, also known in Mandarin Chinese as qipao
  • Chignon (9):  a popular type of hairstyle. The word “chignon” comes from the French phrase “chignon du cou,” which means nape of the neck.
  • Extraterritoriality (12): the state of being exempted from the jurisdiction of local law, usually as the result of diplomatic negotiations
  • charnel (73): associated with death
  • chilblains (159):  a medical condition that occurs when a predisposed individual is exposed to cold and humidity, causing tissue damage. It is often confused with frostbite and trench foot. The cold exposure damages capillary beds in the skin, which in turn causes redness, itching, blisters, and inflammation.
Book References:
  • Revelation of Love by Julian of Norwich
  • Introduction to the Devout Life by Francis de Sales
  • Millions of cats
  • The Story About Ping
  • The Velveteen Rabbit
  • The Clue in the Diary
  • The Secret of Red Gate Farm
  • Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo
  • Guadalcanal Diary
Good Quotes:
  • First Line: My father was a millionaire in Shanghai in the 1930's.
  • Last Line: And I am ready.
Table of Contents:


No comments: