Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Lisa See
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Feb. 2005 (read May 2021)

I didn’t do much reading through summer of 2021 and there are a handful of books that I didn’t review, but I didn’t realize that Snow Flower and the Secret Fan was one of them until recently. I swear I can remember writing a review for this one, but I can’t find it anywhere and I’m really disappointed now that I don’t have one. I’m a huge fan of Lisa See and have written lengthy reviews on both The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane and The Island of Sea Women, so I will do my best to review this one as well, keeping in mind it’s been the better part of 6 months since I read it.

Like most of Lisa See’s books, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is historical fiction set in China. See excels at writing about specific parts of women’s culture (tea cakes in The Tea Girl and the Haenyeo in Sea Women), Snow Flower is no exception and focuses on the practice of foot binding and the relationship between two Laotong. I believe Snow Flower was See’s first book that became really popular, so I’ve been itching to go back and read it for a while now. For some reason I always find Lisa See’s books really intimidating to pick up, but they’re always a joy to read!

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan covers a lot of history, primarily focusing on Lily and her Laotong, Snow Flower. A Laotong is basically a lifelong sistership between two girls that are considered to be “old sames”. Most girls will have sisterhood circles with other girls in their village, but few are selected for Laotong matches, so it’s a particularly auspicious pairing that is arranged by a matchmaker. In this case, Lily is a poor girl, but because her foot binding goes so well, she is matched with Snow Flower, who comes from a much wealthier family. This foreshadows a good future for Lily and will allow her to marry up. 

The book starts off as a story about foot binding and evolves into a novel about so much more. But first let’s spend a bit of time talking about foot binding. This is an old Chinese tradition where young girls’ feet are literally broken and reshaped as a symbol of status. The smaller the end result (as was the case with Lily), the higher the status. In this day and age it seems like a barbaric practice that resulted in the deaths of girls who succumbed to infections in the process of binding and left all women with limited mobility later in life. I don’t like to pass judgement on other cultures, but where it becomes frustrating is that women are still meant to perform the majority of household chores while moving around on tiny feet. 

However in Lily’s case, her successful foot binding allowed for her to move up in society. Having a Laotong is another status symbol and because Snow Flower came from a higher class than her, it further elevated her family and she eventually marries well. But like all of Lisa See’s books, the foot binding is really only a backdrop in which to set her characters and this book is primarily about sisterhood. It’s why I keep returning to her books over and over again because she invests so much time in developing the relationships between women and exploring unique aspects of female culture. These girls live in a remote Hunan country and are taught the secret women’s language of Nu Shu, which was a language created by women, for women. The girls learn it from their mothers and write back and forth to one another on their secret fan when they are unable to be together in person.

This is a hard review to write because of the magnitude of history that See covers in just a short 280 page book. Class relationships are a major theme of the book and I love how he explored compassion through Lily and Snow Flower’s social standings. At the start of the book Lily questions much about Snow Flower because she comes from more money than her, but doesn’t understand that Snow Flower’s family is also falling apart and that because of her father’s addiction to opium, they have basically lost everything. Her family clings to the Laotong relationship as a way to maintain their status, while Lily’s family clings to it as a way to elevate their status. While Lily marries up, Snow Flower is forced into the lowest of matches with that of a pig farmer. I loved the exploration of how this influences the relationship between the two women over time and how all consuming and blinding status can be, eventually driving a wedge between the two women later in life.

At the same time, See covers what I believe is the Taiping Rebellion (it’s hard for me to remember now that it was so long ago). The conflict sees the women thrown from their homes and forced to hide in the mountains while millions are murdered in the villages. I wish I could elaborate more on this conflict, but the details are so foggy in my mind – I just bring it up to highlight the scope that See is able to cover in such a short book without the plot ever feeling rushed. It’s what makes her such an accomplished writer. Though she is ambitious, she always keeps her relationships at the center of her writing and I think this is what ties her novels together without making them seem overwhelming. Though she covers a lot, she sticks to her theme of sisterhood. 

Overall it’s a heartbreaking novel that covers the entirety of Lily and Snow Flower’s lives. While a hard read at times, it’s an eye-opening and meaningful one and I definitely recommend! Even after many months, I still had so much to say about this one and her stories always stay with me for years to come afterwards.

Five Little Indians

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Michelle Good
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Apr. 2020 (read Jun. 2021)

It’s been months since I read Five Little Indians, but I think it is a very important book and I do want to take some time to review it. It’s been getting a lot of press since over 200 children were found buried at the Kamloops Residential School (and thousands more since), shocking many Canadians, but not many indigenous people.

As the title suggests, Five Little Indians follows the lives of 5 survivors of a residential school on the north part of Vancouver Island. Some of these children aged out of the school, while others ran away or were smuggled away by family members. All suffer trauma as a result of the experience and many of the survivors end up in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) in Vancouver.

This is not an easy book to read and that is the way it should be. It doesn’t focus so much on the atrocities committed within residential schools (though they are still featured), but more on the long term trauma that comes with having survived such an experience during your most formative childhood years. The impact the schools had not only on the children, but on parents and entire communities.

When the children leave the school, some of them are lucky enough to have families to return home to, while others have no one and are forced to try and make it on their own at just 17 or 18 years of age. Some of the teens find each other in the DTES and create a new little family, but struggle emotionally and financially, turning to alcohol, drugs, and sex to cope with the trauma and memories they are saddled with from school. Those that are able to return home find that they are returning to families that have been just as broken by the loss of their children to the schools.

Family members turn to their own coping mechanisms and the teens find it hard to return to a culture and community that they now feel divorced from. The role of residentials schools was to “kill the Indian” in the child. The government and the Church succeed in this mission by cutting out the heart of indigenous communities and creating shameful cultural associations in the children. This separation traumatizes the community and the shame of the abuse perpetrated against the children makes it hard for many to return home at all. They have been abused mentally and physically and no longer have any kind of self worth, making it hard to be with the people who love them, even if those people have suffered in their own way.

The writing is simple and I found it effective in that it doesn’t sugarcoat anything. The storyline does a great job of shining a light on the long term impact of residential schools and how many aspects of the schools are still alive in society today. Many would argue that our child welfare system has basically just replaced the schools, with indigenous children still regularly being removed from their families at disproportionate rates – families still suffering from the trauma of residential schools. I recently finished reading The Strangers by Katherena Vermette, which I also think does a really good job at exploring the ways in which indigenous people are still marginalized today.

Everything about this book made me feel uncomfortable and that is kind of the point. Reconciliation is a big and uncertain topic and to think we can attempt it without feeling very uncomfortable is folly. I’ve been trying to work my way through more indigenous literature this year and welcome any other recommendations.

Em

Rating: 
Author: Kim Thuy
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Sep. 2021 (read Oct. 2021)

This is going to be a short review to match a short book. Em was the last of the Giller Prize nominees that I read. I’ve seen the author’s other book, Ru, floating around the Canadian Lit scene for years and decided to give this one a try when I saw it on the longlist. I was intrigued by the time period, ‘Operation Babylift’, and the impact of the Vietnam War on the beauty salon industry in North America, as detailed in the synopsis.

I’ll say upfront that of all the nominees I read, this was my least favourite. I did still like it and was impressed by how much history Thuy was able to cover in such a short book – I thought it was a solid 3 star read. But it was an ambitious novel and I felt it just didn’t deliver on what I thought I was getting from the book jacket. The book is told mostly in prose, which makes for a quick reading experience, which is exacerbated by how quickly Thuy jumps from topic to topic.

I can see why it would be nominated for it’s unique style and it is perceptive. She says a lot with a limited amount of words, which is definitely a skill, the style just didn’t quite work for me. I think the first part of the novel is the strongest, which focuses on the My Lai massacre. This really drew me into the book and it was interesting the associations Thuy made to move the story along. I just wanted more from the rest of the narrative and didn’t find the part of the story set in America to be as tightly executed. It almost worked, I just wanted a bit more from it.

Damnation Spring

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Ash Davidson
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Aug. 2021 (read Sep. 2021 on Audible)

The logging of old growth forests is a hot topic in BC these days and with all the big news stories about corporations polluting water supplies, the synopsis of this book really piqued my interest. It had two good narrators, so I decided to pick it up on Audible.

Damnation Spring combines the two issues I’ve summarized above into one big scandal. It’s the 1970’s and Rich and Colleen have lived in Damnation Grove for their entire lives, where Rich works as a tree-topper with a logging company and Colleen as a midwife. They have one son and have desperately been trying for a second, but poor Colleen keeps suffering miscarriages.

Through her work as a midwife, Colleen starts to remark that there have been a lot more complicated births, as well as infant deaths. Word starts to spread that other women have also been having miscarriages and rumours start to circulate that the pesticides the logging company sprays on the forest is potentially getting into the water supply and causing birth defects.

As an employee of the logging company and new owner of a swath of old growth forest that he’s dreamed of logging, Rich stands on one side of the scandal, while Colleen stands on the other. On top of everything, environmentalists and indigenous groups have been flooding the town arguing for the protection of the trees and threatening the way of life of this long time logging town.

To say this book tries to tackle a lot of issues would be an understatement. The problem was that I don’t think the author really did justice to any of them. This was actually the perfect setting for a story of such depth because so many of these issues are often related. I did really like the inclusion of the local First Nations band, who argued for the protection of the trees and waterways despite the terrible racism and abuse they suffered. I thought the idea of blending all of these issues into one was really smart and multi-faceted, it just wasn’t executed quite as well as I would have liked.

My primary criticism would actually be that this book was too long, although that’s not quite right, it’s not so much that it’s too long, but that the author didn’t really focus on the right aspects of the story. Now this is just my opinion, but the author spent a lot of time talking about logging that I just didn’t care to read. There is so much time dedicated to the logging company, the company drama, and waxing on and off about logging techniques. I just didn’t really care about any of it. I totally got and appreciated that this was a logging town and that it was the community members entire livelihood. Despite popular opinion that we shouldn’t be logging old growth forests (agree), I could still empathize with the community. I 100% bought into Rich’s dream of wanting to log the 24/7 tree, I understood why and yes, I felt bad for him. But this was the smaller part of why I wanted to read this book.

Sadly I felt Davidson just didn’t spend enough time on the whole ‘poisoning-the-water-supply’ angle. I felt like most of the book was an expose about uncovering the water pollution, versus a fight to stop it. This is covered to a certain degree, those who stood up against the spraying were definitely ostracized, but generally I found the conclusion of this plot point to be unsatisfying. It almost felt like the resolution of the two issues were tangential to one another. By which I mean, the pesticides issue was only solved because of the duplicity of the logging company selling out to the Park, negating the need for spraying. It made me question what was even the point of me reading this entire story when at the end of the day, it was still the logging company ultimately calling the shots. . It just made me feel like this was a book about logging, with all the other conflicts thrown in just for the drama of it, rather than the reverse. Likewise, I thought it should have ended earlier and felt there was some unnecessary drama thrown in at the end that didn’t really add to the story.

I did still enjoy the book, but honestly, I think I’d rather just go read some non-fiction about it instead, because we know there’s enough drama surrounding these topics that there’s no need to have to make it up.

Malibu Rising

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Taylor Jenkins Reid
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: June 2021 (read Aug. 2021 on Audible)

Malibu Rising was one of my most anticipated reads of the year, but sadly it was a major letdown. Taylor Jenkins Reid had such success with Evelyn Hugo and Daisy Jones (both of which I loved), so I had very high expectations for this book and sadly it didn’t live up to them. Reid reminds me a bit of Kristin Hannah in that she published a ton of mediocre books before her big break (Evelyn Hugo for Reid, Nightingale for Hannah), followed it up with another smash hit (Daisy Jones and Great Alone), only to regress on the next book (Malibu Rising and Four Winds). Both are accomplished writers, I just think the question becomes whether you’re creative enough to find something else meaningful to write about. Evelyn Hugo had so much great social commentary and Daisy Jones’ format was incredibly unique, but sadly, Malibu Rising had all the trappings of a story that just didn’t need to be told.

Malibu Rising is about the Riva family. Mick Riva rises to fame as a rock artist after marrying June and fathering 4 children. The novel covers their family history before delving into the lives of each of the 4 Riva children, bringing all their family drama to a head at the annual all-night Riva party in Malibu. This had similar vibes to Daisy Jones with the whole rock n roll scene, and the structure and focus on a fire reminded me of Little Fires Everywhere. It’s an all encompassing family drama with a large cast of narrators.

So here’s the thing. This wasn’t a bad book – it did remind me a little bit more of Reid’s earlier work, but it’s still fairly well written. It has a bit of a slow start, but the pace does pick up as the novel progresses and I was honestly just as invested in the past as the present day narrative. So what was the problem with this book? My main issue was that I just didn’t care. I didn’t feel connected to any of the characters and I struggled to understand why I should give a sh*t about any of them. Reid explores several different themes here, but I can’t say I found any of them particularly compelling.

I feel like she was going after something similar to Daisy Jones with the intrigue of the rich and famous (a theme in all her recent bestsellers), but it really didn’t work for me in this book. Like I mentioned, Evelyn Hugo had a lot to say about Hollywood, race, and sexuality, while Daisy Jones had a unique format and a lot to say about gender politics and privilege. But with Malibu Rising I was left scratching my head about why I should really care about this privileged white family? Sure it’s a character study (of many different characters), but a weak one. I didn’t think there was anything really special about these characters and I struggled to relate with them.

I do think one of the problems is that Reid introduces just a few too many characters. I could handle the 4 Riva siblings and June (honestly would have liked Mick to feature more), but for some reason Reid keeps introducing more character perspectives for very limited periods of time. Like, how many random characters did she start adding during the party? I couldn’t keep track of them and they played such small and insignificant roles in the plot that I questioned why bother including them at all? It’s fine to have a large cast of characters, but I don’t need to read from their perspective. It made me question if she was just trying to reach a page count and threw all these other characters in just to add some length.

The same went for Casey and the fire at the end of the book. The fire is alluded to from the beginning of the book, but we don’t actually get into it until the final hour. Very similar to Little Fires Everywhere, but at least in Little Fires Everywhere I felt like it added something to the story, whereas in Malibu Rising I felt that it added nothing to the actual plot and was just used as lazy device for symbolism. Likewise, I thought Casey’s storyline ultimately didn’t really add anything to the plot.

So overall, a very disappointing read for me. I’m between 2 and 3 stars, 2 because it was not a very compelling book, but 3 because it’s still pretty well written. So I guess I’ll end at 2.5 stars. Not a great read, but I still wouldn’t be deterred from reading her next book.