” I understood her system, for I had a landmark of my own,a place I always started from to get wherever I was going, a reference point for everything I did. It was my father. ” (Dust, p.8)
Pitched against the tempestuous political period of early to mid-20th century China is a story of a family living in Shanghai, the Paris of the Orient. The Distant Land of My Father begins in the alluring Shanghai in 1937 where 5-year-old Anna lives with her parents. Her father, Joseph Schoene, the son of missionaries, is a wealthy American businessman who was actually born in China. Eve, the mother, is a beautiful Southern California transplant who does not share her husband’s passion for Shanghai. She seems to regard it as a temporary post despite being completely fit in to the high society and the privilege of Joseph’s world in China.
We’d done what we’d wanted, and we hadn’t had to worry about those quiet moods of his. We were both so good at catering, at revolving around him, and we’d picked it up again so thoroughly and so immediately when he’d come home—home?—that the mood and feeling of our lives had changed a lot . . . (Waiting, p.203)
The narrator is Anna. It is through her perspective that reader is introduced to the dynamics of her parents’ marriage. Her father has quiet moods and he puts his priority in business opportunities, which are thriving until Japanese invasion. The short-lived booming after war and before the Communist upheaval tricks him. Anna places her father high on the pedestal, and later becomes bitterly disillusioned when the family separates. Besides the difference in personal, social, and political consequences of basing one’s decisions, values, and actions solely on money-making prospect, the cause of dissension is that Joseph sees China as home.
Fourteen years, if you rounded up. I had turned thirty in January, so for many years we had not shared a home or even a name, all of which had led me to believe that I’d lived without him for most of my life. But I was wrong. He’d been there all along, in the background, just beneath the surface of my life, even when I’d been angriest, most hurt, most distant; even during all those years when we didn’t know where he was, even when I’d pretended I didn’t care anything about him, he’d been there, and now I was at a loss without him. (Debt, p.354)
When China falls and Japanese starts rounding up allied citizens, Eve and Anna leave Shanghai for Pasadena, and Joseph remains in China, still harboring the hope that the situation will blow over. His two-time imprisonment, under the Japanese occupation and the later Communist upheaval, illustrates the unstable, tumultuous world around which he has built his family. Despite the intriguing historical background and rich cultural setting, The Distant Land of My Father is about how familial bonds are stronger than time, unforeseen circumstances, resentment, and betrayal. Through her father’s grave errors in judgment reader is moved by the capacity of forgiveness and reconciliation. The book is told in a straight-forward manner, spanning about 50 years from 1930 to 1981. This memoir style lends the characters a certain flatness, but Caldwell’s even tone gives the tale a panoramic elegance.
378 pp. Harcourt. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]
Filed under: American Literature, Books, China, Contemporary Literature, General Fiction, Literature Tagged: | Bo Caldwell, Books, China, General Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literature, The Distant Land of My Father