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Not Only a Smooth and Lyrical Read but an Enlightening One as well | Review of “Dragon Springs Road” by Janie Chang (2017) HarperAvenue

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Many of us who read appreciate a story line that is smooth and lyrical. We enjoy slipping into a narrative that seems to float us away from our reality to another world. And it takes a certain type of writer who has that skill. Fans of Janie Chang realized she had that ability to do that with her first novel, and they eagerly awaited her second book. Now Dragon Springs Road has been released, and book readers have the ability to slide into another great story.

Chapter 1 – November 1908, Year of the Monkey – (Pages 1-2)

The morning my mother went away, she burned incense in front of the Fox altar.

The emperor Guangxu and the dowager empress had both died that week. My mother told me our new emperor was a little boy of almost three called Pui. A child less than half my age now ruled China and she was praying for him. And for us.

My mother knelt, eyes shut, rocking back and forth with clasped hands. I couldn’t hear the prayers she murmured and did my best to imitate her, but I couldn’t help lifting my eyes to steal glances at the picture pasted on the brick wall, a colorful print of a woman dressed in flowing silks, her face sweetly bland, one hand in blessing. A large red fox sat by her feet. A Fox spirit, pictured in her human and animal forms.

The altar was just a low table placed against the back wall of the kitchen. Its cracked wooden surface held an earthenware jar filled with sand. My mother had let me poke our last handful of incense sticks into the sand even let me strike a match ot light them. We had no food to offer that morning except a few withered plums.

The Fox gazed down at me with its painted smile.

After we prayed, my mother dressed me in my new winter tunic.

“Stay here, Jailing,” she said, pushing the last knot button through its loop. “Be quiet and don’t let anyone know you’re here. Stay inside the Western Residence until Mama comes back.”

But three days passed and she didn’t come back.

The story deals with Jialing – a seven years old girl whose her mother abandons her in a courtyard on Dragon Springs Road near Shanghai, China  in 1908. Jialing is a mixed race child – Eurasian – and faces contempt from both Chinese and Europeans alike. While she settles into a life of a bond servant to a family who cares for her in turn, she suffers extreme prejudices and hardships. She finds limited comfort with Anjuin – the eldest daughter of the family she serves – and Fox – an animal spirit who has lived for centuries.

Page 121-122

As the date of Anjuin’s wedding drew near, I worried about the promises we had made to each other. I knew I owed the Yangs much, but I longed to be free of my dependence on them. to be free of them all except Anjuin, even though the prospect of being a maid, even one in a house where Anjuin was mistress, didn’t comfort me the way it had when we were children. I didn’t know what a life outside Dragon Springs Road might be like, but between school and Fox, my horizons had stretched wider than I had ever imagined possible.

As for my childish hopes of finding my mother – how was I ever to accomplish that if my fate was tied to the Yangs? Now I understood it would take money because neither fate nor Fox were about to help me Fox had know me for years and had never mentioned my mother.

My grades were passable, my English scores very good. I wouldn’t be able to attend missionary college since I didn’t qualify for a scholarship. I needed a livelihood. At school, one of the teachers had passed around a newspaper article about the Shanghai Women’s Commercial and Savings Bank. The bank’s new general manager was a woman.

“Perhaps I could find work there as a bank teller,” I whispered to Leah.

“I wouldn’t count on any job that put you in front of customers,” she replied in her blunt way. “They don’t want our kind waiting on them.”

Chang has crafted – note the word crafted –  a complex story here filled with facts, emotions and mysticism. A reader can easily get absorbed in the book and find oneself not only enlightened but educated about life in Shanghai, China in the early 1900s. In bringing the story of Jialing to life, Chang has given us thought about the plight of Eurasians in that time period.

Page 194-`195

In the weeks before graduation I spent my lunch hours in the library poring over newspapers for job listings. I wrote application letters in careful brushstrokes if in Chinese or took my turn on the old school typewriter if the job was advertised in one of Shanghai’s English-language papers.

Clerical or secretarial, tutorial or child care, I replied to them all. All this effort, even though I knew it was futile. There were just too many people in Shanghai, too many with more skills than I could offer. There were people willing to work for almost nothing. There were few enough ways a woman could earn a livelihood, and the decent work went first to young women whose family had guanxi, connections, women whose families could afford red envelopes of cash to ease an introduction. Families whose daughters weren’t tainted with foreign blood.

The Shanghai Women’s Commercial and Savings Bank advertised for a filing clerk. A position suitable for the secondary school graduate. Must be tidy in dress and grooming, with clear handwriting. It was the first bank founded by women, a fine place to begin a career, place where I could use my English skills. I wanted this job very badly and was thrilled to receive a reply to my application.

“This is just a small bank, Miss Zhu,” the manager said. Her hair was pulled back in a large bun, the only ornament on her black tunic a small pearl brooch. “We prefer girls with family connections, girls who can bring us more clients. I didn’t notice you had graduated from a mission school. That was my mistake.”

Her words were pleasant enough, but disdain clung to the corners of her lips. It was another, typically brief interview, the sort that was over as soon as I entered the door. I had let my self hope, a mistake.

Janie Chang has created not only a lyrical novel with Dragon Springs Road but also one that enlightens as well. With a well-crafted plot and story, it is definitely a great piece of literature.

*****

Link to Janie Chang’s website

Link to Harper Collins Canada’s website for Dragon Springs Road

Link to my Q&A with Janie Chang “(T)here are many, many details that made their way from family history and into DRAGON SPRINGS ROAD – so yes, I’m still drawing from family history. These small incidents and anecdotes breathe life into the setting, because they’re accounts of real events.”

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No Matter How Bad the Tragedy, a Glimmer of Hope Exists | Review of “Station Eleven” (2014) by Emily St. John Mandel (Harper Avenue)

Eleven

We no doubt live in delicate and fearful times. Be it terrorism, a global pandemic or something as simple as the end of a personal relationship or a the decline of our own health, we are stressed about our futures. And Emily St. John Mandel has captured our concern in her novel Station Eleven.

Page 11-12

He felt an absurd desire to run into the park. It had been rendered foreign by the storm, all snow and shadows, black silhouettes of trees, the underwater shine of a glass greenhouse dome. When he was a boy he’d liked to lie on his back in the yard and watch the snow coming down upon him. Cabbagetown was visible a few blocks ahead, the snow-dimmed lights of Parliament Street. His phone vibrated in his pocket. He stopped to read a text message from Laura: I had a headache so I went home. Can you pick up milk?

And here, all momentum left him. He could go no father. The theatre tickets had been intended as a romantic gesture, a let’s-do-something-romantic-because-all-we-do-is-fight, and she’d abandoned him there, she’d left him onstage performing CPR on a dead actor and gone home, and now she wanted him to buy milk. Now that he’d stopped walking, Jeevan was cold. His toes were numb. All the magic of the storm had left him, and the happiness he’d felt a moment earlier was fading. The night was dark and filled with movement, snow falling fast and silent, the cars parked on the street swelling into soft outlines of themselves. He was afraid of what he’d say if he went home to  Laura. He thought of finding a bar somewhere, but he didn’t want to talk to anyone, and when he thought about it, he didn’t especially want to be drunk. Just to be alone for a moment, while he decided where to go next. He stepped into the silence of the park.

Station Eleven is a dystopian novel. Civilization comes to a grinding halt as a flu virus wipes out most of the population. The plot deals with a group of people somehow connect with one actor. His passing occurs on stage suddenly during a performance of King Lear. And a few hours later the cataclysmic virus arrives. Mandel brilliantly weaves the story line before, during and after those events giving us a unique perspective on the human condition.

Page 39-40

When Kirsten and August broke into abandon hoses – this was a hobby of theirs, tolerated by the conductor because they found useful things sometimes – August always gazed longingly at televisions. As a boy he’d been quiet and a little shy, obsessed with classical music; he’d had no interest in sports and had never been especially adept at getting along with people, which meant long hours home alone after school in interchangeable U.S. Army-base houses while his brothers played baseball and made new friends. One nice thing about television shows was that they were everywhere, identical programming whether your parents had been posted to Maryland or California or Texas. He’d spent an enormous amount of time before the collapse watching television, playing the violin, or sometimes doing both simultaneously, and Kirsten could picture this: August at nine, at ten, at eleven, pale and scrawny with dark hair falling in his eyes and a serious, somewhat fixed expression, playing a child-size violin in a wash of electric -blue light. When they broke into houses now, August searched for issues of TV Guide. Mostly obsolete by the time the pandemic hit, but used by a few people right up to the end. He liked to flip through them later at quiet moments. He claimed he remembered all the shows: starships, sitcom living rooms with enormous sofas, police officers sprinting through the streets of New York, courtrooms with stern-faced judges presiding. He looked for books of poetry – even rarer than TV Guide copies – and studied these in the evenings or while he was walking with the Symphony.

No matter how bad or tense the situation is or where it occurs on the timeline of the story, Mandel infuses the novel with a glimmer of something beautiful for humanity to consider. Life may be harsh or difficult, but there are still unique things to ponder and continue existing for.

Page 119

Sometimes the Travelling Symphony thought that what they were doing was noble. There were moments around campfires when someone would say something invigorating about the importance of art, and everyone would find it easier to sleep that night. At other times it seemed a difficult and dangerous way to survive and hardly worth it, especially at times when they had to camp between towns, when they were turned away at gunpoint from hostile places, when they were travelling in snow or rain through dangerous territory, actors and musicians carrying guns and crossbows, the horses exhaling great clouds of steam, times when they were cold and afraid and their feet were wet. Or times like now when the heat was unrelenting, July pressing down upon them and the blank walls of forest on either side, walking by the hour and wondering if an unhinged prophet or his men might be chasing them, arguing to distract themselves from their terrible fear.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is a dystopian novel which shows great empathy towards the human condition today. While it has a complex plot, it is a fantastic read and ponder.

*****

Link to Emily St. John Mandel’s website

Link to HarperCollins Canada’s page for Station Eleven

Link to a Q&A Emily St. John Mandel did for my blog last spring