Poking around the older interwebs, I came across this title (The Ginger Tree) from another discussion with some fellow book readers, and remembering it was in the forgotten depths of my TBR shelves, I pulled it out. What a treat.
One. This is epistolary and you know I likes me some epistolary novel every now and then.
Two. It has a Feminist-Lite slant to it (despite of it being authored by a man – not that guys can’t relate to female characters, but this was really well done). I like some good Feminist reads.
Three. It was set in a time and country very different to where I am right now. (I wanted to armchair-travel a bit. Going back in time was a nice extra touch.)
This is the tale of Mary MacKenzie, a young Scottish lass who travels with her chaperone to the Far East and China to marry an only vaguely known fiancé who is working out there as a military attaché. Mary is young on many levels, just not with years, and so there is a lot of learning that goes on as the narrative progresses. Mary learns to discard the old manners and expectations of her bossy mother in Scotland, a freedom initially symbolized by Mary refusing to wear her corsets as her voyage takes her into hotter and hotter climes. Her freedom is also exponentially increased when her chaperone unexpectedly dies during the crossing, leaving Mary free to make her own friends. This was her first real taste of independence and she loved it.
So – this is a love story – girl meets boy type – but this has a big twist in it. Mary marries her fiancé but ends up having a relationship with a Japanese nobleman – a move which affects her for the rest of her (and his) life. Being so far from home can be exhilarating freeing at first, but when you are alone, divorced, and pregnant from a high class wealthy man who is already married, things start to get complicated.
It would have been very easy for Wynd to just write Mary as having an epiphany from her experience and turning it around into some other transformative experience, but he doesn’t take the obvious route. Mary is difficult as a person – she wants to fit in with the Chinese and Japanese cultures, but can’t seem to find a place to settle between her Western upbringing and her Far Eastern present, and so frequently is stuck in the Outsider position of both cultures.
The author, Oswald Wynd, had lived in China and Japan for many years, some as a POW in a camp in Malaya in WWII, and you can tell that he loves and respects the cultural differences whilst also acknowledging that these cultural differences can provide long-term barriers to both the Westerners and the Easterners.
This is a far-ranging book, time-wise, covering the beginning of the twentieth century through to WWII, as the world grows and changes so does Mary. Another reviewer pointed out that although The Ginger Tree presents itself as a Feminist-Lite narrative (and the protagonist recognizes the lack of gender equality in the different cultures), she still allows herself to get treated as a doormat. I suppose her lack of assertiveness, in this situation, was that she may have felt that she didn’t have many choices: she was divorced, with two children (one of whom had been taken away from her and one of whom was obviously of mixed parentage), she had had a romantic relationship with a nobleman, and she had no money, no job and nowhere to live. Going back to Scotland was not really an option when there is no communication with her family, and with no money, how would she get there? When one reviews her life in those terms, then it’s easier to empathize with why she did what she did. She’s not the most likeable character in the world, but she is humanly understandable.
PBS Masterpiece has the TV adaptation of this on-line – wonder how good that is…?