I’m a big fan of books that teach me history within the framework of a terrific story. It’s why I loved The Kite Runner, Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith, Lilla’s Feast and Four Spirits. I like being tutored on past perspectives that are real while immersed in the world of fiction; the world of the not real. It’s a lovely pairing.
I am especially fond of novels that whisk me away to another culture and make me ache to see it, taste it and touch it for myself because it seemed so very real when I was lost inside the pages. Snow Flower and The Secret Fan by Lisa See, the book I read while moving from one state to another, is about the deep bonds of friendship and the mess we make of things when we think we know everything about the people we love. The tale is set in 19th-century China and centers around the custom of footbinding as well as an actual secret written language among Chinese women that dates back a thousand years. Both culturally distinct customs provided the framework for revealing a society that fettered its women one moment — footbinding, arranged marriages, servitude, son-bearing — and empowered them the next: the secret language freed them.
The story is told through Lily’s eyes, now in her 80’s, about growing up with Snow Flower, a young girl she was paired with when she was seven to be her lifelong laotong, her “old same.” Her laotong would be a friend and companion for all time, chosen for her because they would complement each other, would help them secure better marriages, would enable them to endure the rigors of being a woman in a culture that only appreciated men. As the girls grew up, they chronicled their entwined life journeys on a fan. It became a secret journal of their shared experiences, experiences which weren’t always pretty. See’s ability to have Lily tell the story without minimizing her faults was one of the things I liked best about it. That, and the power of her story to reveal how we pride ourselves on knowing so much, on being able to figure everything out, and how much we really need to shut up and listen, instead of talk and assume.
This is one of those books that make you writhe at times, taste at others, cry and laugh, and above all, make you glad you live in the time and place in history in which you do. I found myself massaging my feet while I read, assuring myself I still had all my toes and they were all still in the place God put them when He knit me together. But I also found myself massaging my mind as I absorbed the lessons learned when I placed myself in fiction’s quiet lecture hall: We don’t know everything. We assume too much. We love less than we are capable of loving.
A great read.