Lisa See’s History
© Dmae Roberts 2011
I love reading Lisa See’s novels because I learn so much about history. Yes, I get caught up in the characters and their individual struggles and stories but I deeply appreciate the depth of her research. It’s like having a fabulous history teacher who draws you into the big picture of nation’s falling and epic journeys but through the lens of people who end up being your personal friends.
The first Lisa See book I read was On Gold Mountain, a family history that traced the history of her great-great Grandfather, Fong See, and his journey from China to become a 100-year old patriarch of a large family in Los Angeles’ Chinatown. Since that book, See has specialized in writing novels mostly set in China.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a tragic and affecting story of women’s friendships amid oppression and foot binding in 19th century China. Two friends in different villages communicated living through a secret language or code called nu shu that only women knew. They wrote letters to each other on fans and handkerchiefs to share their deepest thoughts. The book has been made into a film, and I’m eager to see it.
Shanghai Girls follows the story of two sisters May and Pearl who escape China who escape the Shanghai during the Japanese invasion in 1937. They live through a horrific time making their way across the countryside. The book covers in detail pre-World War II Shanghai and the difficulty of immigrants who made it to America only to be imprisoned for months or years at Angel Island Immigration Station off the shore of San Francisco. The book ultimately is about the sibling rivalry and affection between the two sisters, but it leaves the reader dangling at the end. So much so, See says she had to write a sequel.
“Everyone asked, ‘will there be a sequel?’” says See. “That was always either the first or second question whether it was in an interview or at a bookstore event or an email.”
In response, See wrote Dreams of Joy, her latest book, which picks up with Joy, the idealistic American daughter of Pearl traveling to communist China in 1957 to find her birth father. The book is about the unconditional love of mothers for their children and in fact Pearl, the mom, follows Pearl to bring her back to America.
See refers to a line in the book, “Mothers suffer. Children do what they want” as the core of the book. “That is a Chinese aphorism.” See says. ‘I think that could be said around the world. People really kind of relate to that, and I know the things I would do to protect my kids, the sacrifices that I would make, the loyalty that I would have to them.”
What’s riveting about Dreams of Joy is the studied and painfully meticulous portrait of the starving years of the Great Leap Forward. Mao Zedong’s campaign to step up production in factories and village farm collectives in order to turn China into a modern society led to mass starvation from 1958-1961. See spent two years researching this history.
“Recent documents released by the government of China seem to suggest that it was about 45 million people over three years,” See says. “The People’s Republic of China started in 1949. Great Leap Forwards starts in 1958. It was a new country. And they had these campaigns where sometimes it would seem like a good idea at the beginning, but they didn’t really think through the consequences.“
The government mandated poor villagers to have as many babies to create a larger workforce. Then the farmers were told to eradicate all insects, rats and sparrows. Villagers would bang on pots and pans 24 hours a day so that birds, never allowed to land, dropped from the sky from exhaustion. With no sparrows to eat the pests, crops failed. Whatever food they could grow was sent to the cities. That led to mass starvation in the countryside. See’s vivid details of villagers either simply lying in the roads waiting to die or eventually resorting to cannibalism still haunt me. Throughout Dreams of Joy, the main characters fight for their humanity amid the horror. When Joy makes her worst mistake—marrying a village boy who only wants to use her—Pearl tries to be supportive of her daughter at the wedding.
“Until now, I thought my daughter had made the greatest mistake possible in coming to China. But that was nothing compared to this marriage. Mothers suffer, children do what they want…” writes Lisa See in Dreams of Joy. “Brigade leader Lai says a few words: Communism is paradise. The people’s communes will take us to it. Tao and Joy, first comrades always, will help the country climb to the highest heights.”
It’s rare for me to shout out “don’t do it!” when I’m reading a novel. But I wanted to stop Joy from getting married and send her back to America. But See says Joy is “on a stubborn path.”
“I think it’s fair to say that at the beginning, she doesn’t think through the consequences,” says See.
That stubborn path reflects the same theme of the Great Leap Forward. “So much of this book is actually about not thinking through the consequences,” says See, “whether it’s on a personally level, or whether it’s on a governmental level. ”
See has started researching a new book—this time looking at Asian American “Cotton Clubs” in NYC during the 1930s. Like always, she’ll about a year at libraries, museums, university collections and oral history societies as she delves into more history. Then she’ll take another year to write a book that will make learning history an undeniable pleasure.