Confession: I am a lower-middle-class white girl. Ok, that’s not the confession; you all know I’m a white girl. My name is Megan Flynn. I pretty much Irish step-danced out of the womb. You can land planes with the reflection off my shoulders. I’m a pasty ginger, it is what it is.
My confession is that, because I am a white girl, when I go looking for historical fiction, I have a tendency to gravitate towards my own history. Probably this is just laziness on my part, and probably it’s also a bit of a bias –I want to read stories about people like me because it’s easier for me to relate to, or something. Anyway, point is, there’s a trend on my historical bookshelf. North America and/or Britain in the World Wars? Check. Irish potato famine? Check. White British/Irish/Scottish people coming over on boats and starting a new life? Check, check, triple check. And let’s be real – I don’t have to look very hard for any of this stuff. It is really super easy for me to find fiction based on my (presumptive and/or hypothetical) history. Books about feisty Irish chicks are not in short supply. I’m working on correcting this flaw, because I love people, and culture and world history, and I know and love people from every type of background and ethnicity. I should be trying to learn their stories as well. I am a lover of stories, and by limiting myself this way I am missing out on a HUGE complement of stories that should not be getting constantly shunted aside in favour of white girls on boats.
Which leads me to this week’s review; the book that was my metaphorical knock about the head regarding the whole big world I was missing out on. The book is called Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and it’s by Lisa See. I bought this book after seeing the trailer for the movie based on it and becoming intrigued. As it turns out, any resemblance between novel and film is purely coincidental (the story takes place in 19th century China, and yet the movie stars Hugh Jackman, so that should tell you something), but I’m grateful to the bad movie and its well-crafted trailer because the book? The book is AWESOMEBALLS.
As I mentioned above, the novel takes place in China between the years 1824 and 1903 and follows the lives of Lily, who narrates in the first person, and Snow Flower. We follow them through childhood, marriage, motherhood and eventually death (no spoilers – this is info you get in the first paragraph). Lily comes from a working class family, but gains status because of her perfect feet which, after binding, are given the coveted ‘Golden Lotus” classification. Basically this means they measure no more than 4 inches, and yes, I’ll give you a moment to wince. Snow Flower’s family, on the other hand, is well-off and moderately powerful.
The girls are matched, via the matchmaker who will one day be responsible for negotiating their marriages, as laotong, which basically means soul sister. Women in China at the time would usually have a group of girls called Sworn Sisters who were their constant companions growing up. A group of Sworn Sisters would dissolve upon marriage. Laotongs were to remain companions for life. The matching of a pair of laotongs was nearly as sacred as the matching of husband and wife, and very few women were given the honour of such a pairing.
Lily and Snow Flower become, to coin a phrase, insta-besties. To communicate between visits, the girls write on a silk fan. They use nu shu which is the secret women’s language, one that is beneath the interest of men and therefore free from scrutiny. Their bond is deep and unflinching throughout their childhood and they go through everything together, from foot binding to being matched with husbands and several other triumphs and tragedies in between. Fortunately for Lily and unfortunately for Snow Flower and the girls’ friendship, the former’s perfect tiny feet allow her to marry into a wealthy, powerful family. Snow Flower’s family, meanwhile, has experienced a drop in status, and so she is matched with a butcher – about as low down the social ladder as you can go.
From here things start to go pretty badly, until finally a perceived betrayal against Lily causes her to turn on her laotong and shun Snow Flower as punishment. It’s sad, let me be up front about that: this book is SAD. But it’s also beautiful and now we’re at the part where I list the reasons why!
First, just the history lesson you get from this book is worth the read. See paints such a vivid picture of China, the land, its traditions, superstitions and values. She touches on a bit of everything, informing the reader on family structure, the lives of women, the feudal system, the roles of match makers and fortune tellers… pretty much anything you could think of, without ever getting pedantic or sounding like she’s spewing a history text book.
Because Lily’s feet are such a key story element, there are several chapters dedicated entirely to foot binding. And people, I am telling, you, I have read stories of trench warfare less harrowing. The detail is excruciating, and important because it sets the tone for pretty much everything the girls are going to go through later. The novel is bookended by two horrors – foot binding on one end and the Taipang Rebellion on the other. One is the private battle fought by six-year-old girls across the country, the other is an enormous uprising that saw people trekking into the mountains to escape and descending again through masses of dead bodies and destroyed villages, and they are both treated with the same gravitas. Speaking of the Taipang Rebellion, there’s a world atrocity that I didn’t even know had ever happened until I read this book. Between twenty and thirty million people died in the rebellion and yet I’m pretty sure I made it through five years of advance world history without ever hearing about it, so that’s probably a problem our education system should examine, but whatever, I’m digressing. The point is, this book tastes like learning and that is one of my favourite flavours.
See also does an absolutely brilliant job of portraying the lives of 19th century Chinese women in a way that showcases them not as victims of an oppressive male-dominated world, but as forces of strength and dignity who learn ways to take back their power where they can. You are supposed to cringe at the awfulness of little girls literally having their feet broken in half, and you are supposed to wonder how in the hell any female person survived even a year of their daily lives, let alone live to be eighty as Lily does… but you are never made to pity them. Instead the women are quiet, steadfast and brutally, brilliantly strong and you just end up respecting the hell out of everyone. Likewise, the relationships between women – from mother and daughter, to the groups of Sworn Sisters, to the central friendship of laotongs Lily and Snow Flower – are told with tenderness and grace and highlight just how important bonds between girls and women are, and how a female friendship can transcend understanding by anyone who’s never experienced it.
Speaking of female relationships, this seems like a good time to examine Lily as a narrator here, because she’s a pretty rare gem. And I say this because she is that rare lady-narrator who is permitted to be pretty awful for no other reasons than because sometimes women are pretty awful. In particular, woman can be uniquely terrible to each other, and Lily becomes kind of the poster child for that behavior. This isn’t to say that Lily is a bad person, she’s really, really not. But she notes early that she is sensitive and desperate for people to love her, and that this triggers some unsightly behavior. When her choice marriage gives her the power and status none of the other women in her family ever had, it changes her, as power tends to do. It turns her need for love into a need for obedience, and her sensitivity into paranoia, perceiving slights where there are none, and in the end it nearly destroys the person she cherishes above everyone else. Lily’s realization of these character flaws comes too late for her to do anything to really repair the damage, and her shame and guilt are real and relatable. The novel, which, again, is explained right from the get-go, is her attempt at atonement. It is her redemption song. And it is sad, and moving, and honest.
I learned a lot from this book, but the most important thing I learned was to never limit myself to the familiar or comfortable. Worlds and worlds open up when you stop looking at the space two inches from your own nose, and there are so many different kinds of people each with their own unique story to tell. We should all celebrate as many of them as we possibly can. My next few reviews are going to run on this theme, so stay tuned! I’ve got aaaall kinds of stories for you…