The Valley of Amazement
by Amy Tan.
One of my favorite childhood books was Homesick by Jean Fritz. I read this book many, many times and it seems I wasn’t alone in this, as the book won a National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Homesick tells Fritz’s own story of growing up in China during the 1920’s – her parents were missionaries – until they moved back to the United States when she was twelve. The title refers to Fritz’s longing to be a “regular” American girl, living in “the States,” and her feeling of homesickness for a country she’d never even seen. Fritz wrote other children’s books, mostly about various early American characters such as Jefferson and Washington, but Homesick was one of my all-time favorites.
I thought of this book while reading Amy Tan’s (author of The Joy Luck Club and National Book Award finalist*) new book, The Valley of Amazement. I even went so far as to get an old copy of Homesick from the library and re-read it one evening. It is still a really great book.
Most of Valley of Amazement is about the dangerous and depressing world of courtesan houses in early twentieth century China and that is not, thank goodness, the connection I had in mind regarding Homesick. It was just one particular paragraph in Valley that stirred this book memory. Violet, the main character in Valley, is a fourteen year old half-Chinese half-American girl living in her mother’s courtesan house in Shanghai. The year is 1912, and Dr. Sun Yat-sen has been made the provisional president of the new Republic of China in a revolution that deposed the old emperor. A major anti-foreigner movement accompanies this change, as well as growing Communist tendencies (eventually Yat-Sen makes some deals with the Communist party, leading to their takeover). Violet stands in the kitchen and realizes that the attitudes of the servants and cooks seems different, as well as something else about them:
“Today they acted as if I were a stranger. The expressions on their faces were ugly, and there was also something odd about their appearance. One of them turned to reach for a flask of wine. They had cut off their queues! Only one man had not, Little Duck, the manservant who opened the door to the house and announced visitors who came in the afternoons. His queue was still wrapped around the back of his head. I once asked him to show me how long it was. As he unwound it, he had said that it was his mother’s greatest pride. She said the length of it was a measure of respect to the emperor…The cook snorted at Little Duck. ‘Are you an imperial loyalist?’ The others laughed, baiting him to cut it off…he loosened the coil and stared at his beloved pigtail, then hacked it off…Little Duck wore such a painful grimace you would have thought he had killed his mother.”
There’s a very similar occurrence in Homesick. In her home in China, Jean and her parents have a few servants, including a cook named Yang Sze-Fu: “He was smoking a cigarette, which he wasn’t supposed to do in the kitchen, but Yang Sze-Fu mostly did what he wanted. He considered himself superior to common workers. You could tell because of the fingernails on his pinkies. They were at least two inches long, which was his way of showing that he didn’t have to use his hands for rough or dirty work.” After an increasing number of anti-foreigner and pro-Communist riots, Jean “began to see that this war was going to mean more than just talk, but at first I didn’t connect Yang Sze-Fu’s fingernails with the war. Of course I was surprised the next morning when I noticed that the long, spiky nails on his pinkies were gone and were now the same length as his other nails.
I asked Lin Nai-Nai [her nanny]…’He’s a Communist,’ Lin Nai-Nai said. ‘Commnists don’t believe in long fingernails. They believe all people should be working people, no one pretending to be better than anyone else.’”
Lest anyone be concerned, neither Lin Nai-Nai nor Fritz herself fails to mention that beyond this mild description, the Communists were also responsible for attempting to starve the innocent inhabitants of Wuchang into surrender.
Tan’s novel takes place mostly from 1912 to 1915, and Fritz’s memoir takes place from 1925-27 – but perhaps similar events happened over this general period of time. There isn’t much else in Valley about these political happenings, and they only figure in so much as they create distraction for certain characters so that Violet is kidnapped into another courtesan house. Like her other books, Valley is mostly about familial legacy and secrets and the very complex relationships between mothers and daughters. After being forced to work in a courtesan house, Violet attempts to escape by marrying a man who seems nice. He doesn’t live long enough for her to really find out, and he dies without making legal arrangements for her to inherit anything, so it’s back to the courtesan house for her. Again she attempts an escape by marrying a man who seems nice, but he’s definitely not. He tells her she will be the First Wife, but she is tricked and ends up as Third Wife, destitute, and regularly beaten. She manages to escape from this, too, then survives some riots and intimidation by various Shanghai gangs, and eventually is reunited with her mother and her daughter (who was kidnapped as well. Though not into a courtesan house. To an evil step-grandmother instead. Probably a better fate). I did admire the spirit that Tan gave to Violet, who certainly comes across as a courageous and spunky character. But the story of Violet’s mother gave me trouble; it came across as so wild and random and unusual that I felt it was hard to follow believably.
It seemed to me to be more graphic than her other books, probably because most of it takes place in courtesan houses. It’s depressing, but a good reminder that on the whole, women have it pretty good in America, notwithstanding debates about equal pay and childcare options.
After re-reading it twenty years later, I still like Homesick better than Valley of Amazement.
*You can also read an interview with her from this week in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/17/books/review/amy-tan-by-the-book.html?ref=books&_r=0