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.

Lovely War

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Julie Berry
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Mar. 2019 (read Apr. 2021 on Audible)

Lovely War is another book that I found on Booktube. Hailey from Hailey in Bookland recommended it and I was really intrigued after I read the synopsis. I know Greek re-tellings are all the rage right now, but personally they’ve never really been my thing, but the idea of the Greek Gods narrating a human love story set in WW1 is somehow way more compelling to me. I was expecting something similar to the Book Thief, so I was pretty amped.

I did enjoy this book, but I would probably rate it more like 3.5 stars than 4 stars because it just wasn’t quite what I wanted it to be. The premise of the story is that when Hephaestus catches his wife Aphrodite having an affair with Ares, she convinces him to let her explain herself through the telling of a great human love affair (more or less – to be honest I thought the reasoning for her telling the whole story was somewhat weak). So she launches into a story about 2 couples during World War 1.

I think the key reason I wasn’t 100% sold on this book is because, even though I was invested in these 2 loves stories, at the end of the day, they just weren’t quite moving enough for me to be like “yeah, I understand why the God of Love was so moved by them”. I mean what would be epic enough for Aphrodite to take notice? I honestly have no idea, but I’ve definitely felt more moved by other stories.

I do wonder if I might have enjoyed this better as a paperback. I read it as an audiobook and I didn’t think the dialogue quite passed the audio test. I find audiobooks to be particularly good at exposing sub-par writing and dialogue. I didn’t think the writing was sub-par, but I can’t deny the dialogue definitely came across as a bit cheesy, which I think overall took away from the story. It’s hard to think of a couple as having a great love story when you’re rolling your eyes at some of their conversations.

So that was my biggest flaw with the book, but I do want to talk about what I liked, because there was still lots to like in this book! Namely, Aubrey Edwards. Hazel and James, in my opinion, are just another run of the mill love story, I know things go awry for them in the way things always do in war stories, but there was nothing in their relationship that I thought really made them special. Likewise, I did think parts of Aubrey and Collette’s love story were somewhat disappointing as I didn’t really feel their personal chemistry, but I was super enthralled with Aubrey’s story because it is really what sets this book apart from other WW1 books.

Because Aubrey is a Black American from the 15th New York infantry. Maybe I’m not reading the right books, but I can’t think of any popular WW books that focus on Black people. I thought this was such a great addition to the story because BIPOC are so often left out of this era of history. There’s a ton of literature focusing on slavery and the civil rights movement, but we tend to think of the world wars as a part of white history. But in the same way that Black Americans have been present for every part of America’s history (since European contact), they are often left out of the narrative. Did many Black divisions serve in the World Wars? No, but it’s as much a part of Black history as it is the history of white Americans, so I really liked seeing Aubrey’s experience represented. Plus, his experience offered something totally new. Rather than just another war romance, his was a perspective that forced me to consider something new.

Aubrey comes to Europe wanting to fight, the same as any shiny-eyed soldier. But even with the nightmare that trench warfare is, Black soldiers still weren’t considered good enough for it. Let the glory go to the White troops, Black troops were good for manual labour. Building roads and digging the trenches, all the while making sure to keep themselves separate from the White soldiers. The biggest threat Aubrey’s Regiment faces is that they’ll get on the wrong side of a trumped up White soldier who wants to make sure Black Americans remember their place in the world.  The irony being that you could go all the way to France to fight Hitler and be killed by your own compatriot. 

So Aubrey’s story was both eye-opening, but not overly surprising. It’s inspiring the optimism his Regiment carried around with them, that serving in the war would serve to elevate the position of African Americans. I also really liked how music tied in so closely with the theme and that we got exposure to the birth of the jazz age. To be honest I was more interested in the links between war and music, rather than the central theme about war and love. 

In conclusion, it’s hard to rate the book because while I was less enamoured with some parts, there were other parts I loved. Most disappointing was that overall, I just didn’t think that having the Greek Gods narrate the story actually added that much to  it. It makes the framing of your key themes a lot easier, but you could still explore the same themes without the Gods. But it’s by no means a bad book and I still really enjoyed it – I would have just liked to flip the narrative and have Aubrey as the focal character rather than Hazel. Would still recommend!

Two Trees Make a Forest

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Jessica J. Lee
Genres: Non-Fiction, Memoir, History
Pub. Date: Jul. 2020 (read Jan. 2021)

I was really intrigued by the title and synopsis of this book and picked up a copy from my local bookstore. Soon afterwards it was shortlisted for Canada Reads 2021 and I was even more excited to read it!

Two Trees Make a Forest is Canadian author Jessica J. Lee’s second book. As the name suggests, it’s about her travels in Taiwan whilst trying to learn more about her grandparents past. Her grandparents were both Chinese, but immigrated to Taiwan where they raised their daughter, before eventually all settling in Canada. Lee grew up in close proximity to her grandparents, yet in many ways felt like she didn’t really know them. They talked little about the past and though her family held a close connection to Taiwan, Lee knew very little about their life there. After the death of her grandfather, the family discovered a letter he left behind about his past, inspiring Lee to visit Taiwan and learn more about both her family history, and the unique history of the island.

This was a well written book, but it was a struggle for me to finish it. I found Lee’s stories about her grandparents and family to be really interesting, however, they are really only a small piece of this book. Revisiting the title of the book, it does tell us that this book is as much about “Taiwan’s mountains and coasts” as it is about her family, but I guess I was just expecting something a little different. This is not a story of Lee following her roots around Taiwan, but rather Lee finding herself around Taiwan, while simultaneously coming to terms with the family history that has been in many ways lost to her.

Lee is an interesting storyteller and the book focuses just as much on Taiwan’s geographical history as it does her personal history. She talks about the history of the island the geographical uniqueness of it. Her love for Taiwan certainly shines through and I did learn some interesting facts about Taiwan and it’s history, but I also learned a lot more about Taiwan’s trees and mountains than I really bargained for. On paper, as an avid hiker, you would think I’d love it, but I’m not really a big non-fiction reader, and certainly not a history reader, so it just didn’t quite deliver on something I was excited about reading.

So it’s a bit of a hard book to rate because I did think it was good, I just wasn’t invested in it. I read everything about her family history, but I ended up skim reading a lot of the geographical information. Good, just not for me.

The Woman They Could Not Silence

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Kate Moore
Genres: Non-Fiction, History
Pub. Date: Jun. 21 2021 (read Jan. 2021)

To all the women who have had someone call them crazy.

I stumbled across The Woman They Could Not Silence on Netgalley and immediately put in a request because I loved Kate Moore’s last book, The Radium Girls. In a similar vein, her new book shines a light on an important part of women’s history that has been somewhat lost to time. Moore excels at writing this kind of journalistic memoir in a way that is riveting to read and immediately connects readers to the protagonists. Despite this being a non-fiction book, it reads like fiction, bringing historical figures to light in a way that makes readers really empathize with their plight. In short, Moore knows how to ignite righteous anger at the injustices that have been, and continue to be, perpetrated against women.

This story starts in Illinois in 1860 and centers around one woman, Elizabeth Packard. After 21 years of marriage and bearing 6 children with her husband Theophilus, he has Elizabeth committed to the Illinois State Insane Asylum against her will. Her crime? Questioning Theophilus’ bible study teachings in the church in which he is a pastor. Pushing back against your husband, questioning religion, and being intelligent in general were all signs of mental illness in the 1860’s, and as such, Theophilus has no difficulty in getting his wife locked up.

Elizabeth immediately fights back against the claim that she is insane, but recognizing that such pleas will only make her look more insane, she does her best to maintain her dignity at the asylum and after her first meeting with the state hospital director, Dr. Andrew McFarland, with whom she develops a good relationship, she is sure her release will not be long in coming.

Though Dr. McFarland is unable to determine the root of Elizabeth’s insanity, he is convinced it is there and will be revealed in time. Due to her intelligence, she is granted special privileges at the hospital. However, despite these privileges, Elizabeth soon becomes aware of the level of abuse that is being perpetrated by hospital aides within the walls of the hospital and starts stirring up trouble with the other inmates. This results in the revoking of Elizabeth’s privileges and life at the hospital soon becomes very hard for her.

The rest of the novel is about Elizabeth’s struggles in the asylum and her fight for freedom. Elizabeth is very intelligent and an accomplished writer, and though Dr. McFarland tries to silence her within the walls of the hospital, she is determined to record and share her story. She makes friends within the asylum and keeps a secret journal of all the abuses she witnesses. I couldn’t help but compare her to Alexander Hamilton because the woman constantly wrote like she was running out of time!

However, her goals are not only to record history, but to change it. Elizabeth is strategic in going about this. She knows that raging against the machine will get you nowhere in an insane asylum and so she goes about cultivating relationships and manipulating those around her, including McFarland. I found it really interesting to read about Elizabeth’s experiences and progression while at the asylum.

The whole system is completely unjust for so many reasons, but the two that stand are that, first, almost no proof is required to lock a woman up in an asylum. All Theophilus needed was 2 certificates of insanity from local doctors, which he was easily able to procure thanks to his influence as a man and pastor. Unmarried women are entitled to a trial before being shipped off to the asylum, but married women need only the desire of their husbands. As they are considered his property, they are not permitted any voice of their own. Many of the other women in the asylum were in the same situation as Elizabeth and had been sent there without any legal rights.

Second, the whole premise of what qualifies a person as insane or cured is entirely stacked against the patients. Like I said, women could basically be committed for showing any inkling of self thought or governance. Theophilus didn’t like that Elizabeth was questioning things or flouting his authority, so he quickly put an end to it. But what’s really enraging is that women who push back against the diagnosis of insanity only further the diagnosis. Showing any kind of indignation at anything is basically a sign of insanity. Women were only considered cured when they would finally submit to everything: the will of the abusive attendants, their doctor, and their husbands. The injustice of the system is that it literally conspires to make you insane and then only release you at the moment when your spirit is finally irreparably broken.

I say Elizabeth’s progression is interesting because she somehow manages to hold on to this one thread of truth throughout the entire ordeal, the idea that ‘I am not insane’. She is determined to be free and she is determined to be free under her own will, not through submission. The longer she is imprisoned, the more frenzied she becomes in her desperation to get out. She documents her experiences and ideas in a kind of manic fervour that you can’t help but question if maybe she is going a little bit insane. Rather than diminish, her ideas of justice and equality of women only grow more and more ambitious to the point where she envisions women as totally equal to men and able to even hold public office, something that is quite radical in 1860 and unlikely to get you released from an insane asylum.

I don’t want to give away the whole book because even though it’s historical, it’s still a story and I did take joy from the experience of having no idea whether Elizabeth was going to succeed and to what degree. She inspired a book to be written about her, so I knew she was going to have some level of success, but it was honestly so bleak, it was hard to imagine how a woman would ever recover from either the trauma or the stigma of such an asylum.

But Elizabeth is a fighter and I honestly can’t imagine a woman with more spirit. She had a lot of influence on early American politics and it is a shame that her name is virtually unknown, even among the roll call of suffragettes. But such is the way of women’s history and I love that we keep hearing about more and more women who have contributed greatly to our society but who’s legacies have been little preserved.

The author added a post script at the end of the book that I really liked. The book will make obvious the impact Elizabeth’s writings and efforts had on the women’s rights movement, but it also highlights how these same ideas are still present in today’s society. The idea of insanity is still used today to threaten, discredit, and silence women. Men have always used the excuse of ‘craziness’ to belittle women. The idea that fault lies only with women is still wildly believed by many men and women, even if only subconsciously. When men don’t like the ideas or actions put forth by women, it’s only too easy for them to dismiss them entirely with the callously thrown away phrase “she’s crazy”. I think we see it used most often by men to either dismiss the actions or requests or a partner or to speak of their ex. But even women use it to describe other women, particularly in scenarios where it relates to how other women interact with men (I’m thinking of reality television here).

But the idea is everywhere. Moore draws attention to its presence even at the top level of the American government when Trump once screamed at Pelosi for being wrong in the head. Powerful men still seek to silence women through the threat of insanity. For this reason, I thought this an extremely important read. A lot of the content didn’t surprise me, but experiencing it through Elizabeth’s eyes did help to put it into perspective. Even after all the work that Elizabeth did, Dr. McFarland is still kindly remembered by the eyes of history while Elizabeth has more or less been forgotten.

This wasn’t a perfect book. I thought the writing was a little simplified in the beginning, though it got much stronger as the story went on. I also thought the story could have been shortened, some parts are a little over indulgent and I fear the length may deter some readers from this. But overall, still an excellent read and I would definitely recommend!

The Island of Sea Women

Rating: 
Author: Lisa See
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub date: Mar. 5, 2019 (read Jan. 2019)

I read The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane back in 2017 and really liked it. I’ve been meaning to read some more of Lisa See’s work ever since, but the content is quite heavy, so I keep putting it off. So when I received an early copy of The Island of Sea Women from Simon and Schuster Canada, I was excited to finally read another one of Lisa’s books!

I clearly need to prioritize reading some of her earlier works because I liked this just as much as I like the Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, maybe more!! The Island of Sea Women is about a matrifocal community of female divers on Jeju Island. Jeju Island is a large volcanic island located to the south of South Korea. It was under the control of the Japanese until the end of WWII, when it was taken over by the Americans.

What’s interesting about the island and many of its communities, is that they are mostly focused on women. Many of the traditional gender structures still exist in that men own property, the ownership is passed down through the male line, and giving birth to boys is valued because only boys can attend school and perform ancestor worship. However, the women are viewed as the providers and decision makers and the men stay home and raise the children. This is because it is the women on the island who become Haenyeo. Haenyeo are a collective of divers who are widely respected. They row offshore every day to dive in the frigid ocean for sea-life to feed their family and to sell to wealthy Japanese colonizers. The most prized catch is the abalone, but they also dive for sea urchins, octopus, squid, and other species.

See focuses her story on Young-sook. Young-sook is the daughter of a Haenyeo chief, so she learns to dive from an early age and develops a very close friendship with another girl in the community, Mi-ja. The two girls are inseparable and both join the Haenyeo collective when they come of age and travel together as young women to do leave-home diving work. However, as they grow older, their friendship is challenged and circumstances arise to drive a wedge between the two women. This book tells Young-sook’s life story, her friendship with Mi-ja, and the sad history of Jeju Island.

I was really interested in the Haenyeo culture and how they work together as a collective. I thought it was fascinating the ways that traditional gender roles were sometimes switched in this culture, but remained similar in other ways. I find diving to be fascinating (and terrifying) and I really liked learning about the Haenyeo traditions, how they would organize and dive together, and how resilient these women are. But what I really loved about this book was the way it also takes us through South Korea’s history.

I read Min Jin Lee’s book, Pachinko, last year and really liked it. It’s about a Korean family that immigrates to Japan and the challenges they faced there as immigrants. It was a good introduction the the history between Korea and Japan. This book also focuses on that conflict, but from a different angle and perspective; between the two books I learned a lot about Korea and Japan. The history covered in this book is upsetting to be sure, but it is a very good look at how Western countries can tear other countries apart in their own political disputes. Korea was split at the end of WWII, to be governed by the Soviet Union in the North and America in the South. Russia obviously promoted communism and America, democracy.

As everyone knows, American’s were extremely threatened by the rise of communism. I’m still not super familiar with Korea’s history, but from this book, it seems that there was support for communism on Jeju Island, which created conflict between the island and the rest of the Korean mainland. Rebel groups popped up among the mountain tribes on Jeju Island and fighting ensued between rebel groups and the authorities. Korea had a culture of guilt by association, whereby if a member of your family committed a crime, you were considered tainted by association. This resulted in consequential killings in which families and entire communities might be punished for the actions of an individual. The Jeju uprising officially began on April 3, 1948, and resulted in the destruction of many villages and left many people homeless.

I’ll admit, I know very little about Korea’s history, but I loved learning about it from Young-sook’s point of view. The people of Jeju had always had a tumultuous relationship with the Japanese and she observed that little changed within their communities with the end of WWII and that their power mostly just changed hands between the Japanese and the Americans. Young-sook observes that they have always been oppressed, but that Korean’s always looked after one another. However, because of differing ideologies between a democratic and communist state, she was upset to see Korean’s start to turn on one another.

From this setting, we also see how the Haenyeo were forced to change and adapt over the years and the impact the conflict had on their diving activities. The Haenyeo are still very popular, but more as a tourist attraction. The birth of daughters was also celebrated on Jeju as it ensured the financial stability of the family. However, very few girls are training to become Haenyeo these days and the collective has greatly aged, with few young women to take their places. I loved how See balances the challenges and changes to the collective along with the changing and increasingly challenging political climate on the island. It also linked in with Young-sook’s changing relationship with Mi-ja. While the novel takes us through 70 years of Korean history, at it’s core, it is a story about friendship and forgiveness.

As much as I loved this book, I do have one criticism, which is what brought my rating down from 5 stars to 4 stars. The story is told in 5 parts and progresses pretty naturally through time. However, each part starts with a flash forward to 2008. While I see some value in the 2008 timeline, I think it would have worked better as a short epilogue focused on remembering the April 3 incident and finding peace. I did not like the inclusion of Clara in the story. While Young-sook struggles with her feelings and forgiveness throughout the second half of the novel, I felt this last storyline came too late in the story and timeline. Personally, I thought the ending felt forced and manipulative. I felt like the author was trying to manipulate me into this cathartic moment at the end, but the catharsis was too late in coming and not believable to me.

Despite the ending, I still loved this book. Though the story focuses on Young-sook, I loved the exploration of Mi-ja’s story as well. The history and decisions of some of the characters were upsetting, culminating at the April 3 incident. However, I felt that they demonstrated how things can change in an instant and how in life and death situations, what might have been a well-meaning action or decision can be interpreted in the aftermath. It’s a somber realization, but it was the defining moment of Young-sook and Mi-ja’s relationship. I would definitely recommend this book.

The Island of Sea Women will be available for purchase in stores on Mar. 5th, 2019. Thanks to Scribner and Simon and Schuster Canada for providing me with a free copy in exchange for an honest review.