Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Book Review: Letters in the Jade Dragon Box (Whitney Finalist)

Title: Letters in the Jade Dragon Box
Author: Gale Sears
Enjoyment Rating: 7/10
Referral: Whitney Finalist
Source: Library Copy
Books I've read this year: 24

I'm both delighted and a little bit surprised that this is the second book I've read this year with LDS characters and themes that takes place in Asia. And although I might not have picked this book up if it hadn't been for the Whitney Awards, I'm really glad I read it because it gave me lots of good insights about life in rural China, the ramifications of the Great Leap Forward, and some of the ways that the Chinese government destroyed family structures in the 1950s and 1960s.

Letters in the Jade Dragon Box tells the story of Chen Wen-Shan, a teenage girl living with her great-uncle in Hong Kong in the mid-1970s. One day Wen-Shan and her uncle are summoned to the home of an art dealer, who presents them with a Jade Box that contains letters from Wen-Shan's mother and paintings from her grandfather (the uncle's brother). These letters and paintings had to be smuggled out of mainland China and represent the first communication the family has had since Wen-Shan was smuggled over the border herself, ten years earlier. Over the last decade, she's built up resentment and questions about her past, and the answers to those questions are mostly answered through the letters. However, many of the answers are painful to hear.

While the primary narrative deals with Wen-Shen coming to terms with her past, there's an important secondary narrative. The great-uncle (sorry, I can't remember his name and I returned the book to the library) is one of the early converts to the LDS Church in Hong Kong, but when his wife died and Wen-Shan came to live with him, he stopped attending church. While Wen-Shan learns about her past, and she and her uncle also learn more about the Church and make an effort to reengage with it.

I found the book to be interesting, well-researched, and multi-layered. It wasn't a book to read just for the sake of saying I'd finished it, which is sometimes the case when I read for this contest. My main criticism of the book is something that is hard for me to articulate, which is that Wen-Shan felt like an American in her thoughts and ideas. Maybe Sears would account for this by saying that she was very interested in becoming "Western" (a criticism her uncle often levels at her), but her reactions didn't seem to take into account cultural differences (I don't feel like I'm explaining this well). I also thought the book would have worked better written in the first-person. However, these are small complaints, and overall, I really enjoyed Letters in the Jade Dragon Box. More importantly, I felt like I learned a lot without being preached to too much.

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