Sunday, June 21, 2009

Shanghai Girls

My book group tends to favor historical fiction, particularly when set in another part of the world. Although we all love travel, we realize that we cannot go all the places we'd hope to visit, and even if we could, we could only be there in the present. To be able to travel across place and time, nothing beats a book. When our group selects a book set in another country or in another culture, we often plan our meeting to include a meal from that culture. We've enjoyed Indian food, Japanese, and some good ol' Southern fare (which isn't foreign to use, but certainly brings a book to life).

For our July meeting, we are reading Lisa See's Shanghai Girls. Those of us who've been in the group awhile have read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Peony in Love. Although the two books were quite different, we learned so much as we became engrossed in the story. I know that the description of the foot-binding process, detailed in such excruciating detail in Snow Flower, will stay with me. This new novel is another departure for See. Although the story begins in China in 1937, the two main characters, two Chinese sisters forced into arranged marriages, find their way to California.

I know so much more about Ellis Island and the immigrants who entered the country by crossing the Atlantic Ocean, but I knew very little about Angel Island and the Pacific immigrants. In Isabel Allende's novels, I have learned about some of the experiences of the Chinese in that part of the world, but this novel showed even more of an insider's view of the difficulties facing those who came to this country, many leaving comfortable affluent lives to face poverty and prejudice that we can hardly imagine.

Even though the story spans twenty years from the late thirties to the fifities, I have to believe that many of the details of the lives chronicled here parallel that of immigrants today--Hispanic, Asian, and particularly those from Islamic nations. I am also reminded how universal the human experience is. People have such similar dreams, hopes, disappointments, and fears. Most people have flaws as well as redeeming qualities. As a sister (with four sisters), I loved the dynamics between Pearl and May--so different, so competitive, such friends.

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