Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

I kept picking this book up but not buying it. I was definitely attracted to it but had heard little about it so kept putting it off.

Then, the other day, one co-worker was returning it to another co-worker and I mentioned my indecisiveness. The next thing I knew I was taking the book home.

After I read One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus, my copy was handed around to at least five other people. It traveled down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, to California and to New York. I thought that spoke volumes about the story, the word of mouth that enticed my friends and acquaintances to experience it.

This copy of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan has a similar history which encouraged me to bump it up my reading list. I'm pleased that I did so. I started it on Christmas and finished it last night.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a story of the lot of women in rural China in the late 19th century and the story of an unlikely lifelong friendship between Lily and Snow Flower. I have not done much reading about this era or culture so found the book edifying as well as entertaining. Women were valued only as mothers of sons but as often happens with oppressed populations, they found subtle ways to circumvent the various authorities in their lives. As Lily's mother-in-law taught, "Obey, obey, obey, then do what you want."

The focal point of the story is nu shu,
the secret-code writing used by women in a remote area of southern Hunan Province [which is believed to have] developed a thousand years ago. [Nu shu] appears to be the only written language in the world to have been created by women exclusively for their own use.

I like this hook. It speaks to our contemporary mores and allows our 21st century sensibilities to connect with these women's 19th century realities.

See does a good job of foreshadowing without hitting the reader over the head. The hints are woven into the story just as off the cuff observations might be. One reviewer describes the work as understated and absorbing which captures my reaction well. While avoiding being overwrought, See invokes various emotions, including anger, wonder, horror, sadness and, yes, tears.

Lisa See will be appearing here in Aspen on February 20 at Aspen Winter Words. I just might have to check it out.

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