Monday, February 26, 2007

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan


I read a beautifully written book this weekend that I encourage you to read when you have the opportunity. I should add that this is a "major chic book" (Shawn's words).

Written in the style of a memoir, it is narrated by 80-year-old Lily Yi as she looks back on her life. Her story begins in 1828 in her village of Puwei in southwestern China. Her father is a hardworking, respected farmer. As in all traditional Chinese families, sons are revered and daughters are seen as temporary obligations, to be passed on to other families at the time of marriage. Even at age 5, Lily, the third daughter in a family of five children, understands her position.

But everything changes on the day the village diviner arrives to help her mother choose a propitious date for Lily and her cousin to begin having their feet bound. The diviner declares that Lily is no ordinary child. A special matchmaker announces that Lily's feet have particularly high arches and, if properly bound, could be shaped into golden lilies -- those highly coveted tiny, perfect feet that might be their key to prosperity. "Fate -- in the form of your daughter -- has brought you an opportunity," the matchmaker says. "If Mother does her job properly, this insignificant girl could marry into a family in Tongkou." Thus in one day, Lily's position in her family changes -- she remains a commodity, but one that now needs to be nurtured so that the family can realize her full value.

Later the matchmaker also suggests to Lily's mother a laotung match for her daughter, a relationship with a girl from the best village in the county. She is the same age as Lily, and their friendship is meant to last a lifetime, being perhaps even more profound than marriage itself. This match would signal to her future family that Lily is not only a woman with perfect golden lilies but also one who has proved her loyalty. When Lily meets her laotung, Snow Flower, she is given a fan with a secret message written in nu shu script inside.

The book reveals to us the horrors of foot binding (foot bent back, bones broken and reshaped), a young girl's innocent dreams of life in a new home mingled with fears of being married off to a stranger, and the obsession with bearing sons. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a thoughtfully written, heart-breaking story.

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