Monday, October 4, 2010

#BookReview: The Girl from Purple Mountain: Love, Honor, War,and One Family's Journey from China to America - May-lee Chai & Winberg Chai

As a child I hated spending time with my "mean" grandmother. It wasn't so much that she was mean, it was more that I didn't understand her. In The Girl from Purple Mountain, May-lee and Winberg Chai tell the story of their grandmother and mother from their points of view.

With the passing of Ruth, the matriarch of the family, the Chais are thrown into a tizzy. To her family's astonishment, Ruth secretly arranged to be buried alone and away from the plots purchased by her husband. And so begins the story of how Ruth came to be the way she was. To May-lee she was the stern grandmother that rarely showed affection. To Winberg she was his extraordinary mother.

In a time when Christianity was new in China, Ruth was a proud Christian. Her determination led to her studying in America and earning a degree from Wittenberg University. Her cunning ways saved her from marrying a shallow man and instead marrying his younger, more studious brother. While the world around her crumbled, she continued to lift up her husband and sons. It's no wonder that with the weight of the world on her shoulders, she became the stern grandmother that May-lee came to know.

In reading this I found myself drawing parallels between Ruth and my grandmother, who raised twelve children while surviving a divorce and later the death of her second husband while living first in Mississippi and later in East St. Louis. She never told her children she loved them, but they always knew because of her actions. Her no nonsense manner, the result of living in a segregated and unjust world, was a steady in the lives of her children and in mine until she passed in 1988. It has always been strange to hear my aunts and uncles speak of her in such glowing terms. Much like I saw my grandmother differently than my mother did, I know that my daughter sees my mother much differently than I do.

What did you like about this book?
May-lee and Winberg Chai have done a magnificent job of presenting the same person in such a way that she almost seems like two different people.

What did you dislike about this book?
At times the portions written by Winberg can get wordy. I imagine that it's because he remembers China so vividly that he wants to share as much as possible.

What could the author do to improve this book?
Other than the wordiness here and there, I wouldn't change a thing.

Published June 2001

Theme: Grandma's Hands by Bill Withers

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