Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Adventure classics -- Choosing happiness

The Joy Luck Club

by Amy Tan


Some time ago, I read an article by a well-known literary agent I won’t name, claiming she could only represent historical fiction if it was about a well-known historical character. The article was in Solander, the magazine formerly published by the Historical Novel Society.

Obviously, some major world figures have lived amazing fictional lives as well, although maybe it’s me, but I can’t imagine the life of an Abraham Lincoln who slays vampires, for instance, is anywhere near as fascinating as Lincoln’s actual life.

This blog has forced me to acknowledge things about myself I don’t always like to admit, and one of them is that I’d rather keep the biographies of world-shaking figures on the nonfiction shelf. I just as soon not see Lenin, for instance, hijack Dr. Zhivago. Or Augusto Pinochet usurp The House of the Spirits. And I applaud Amy Tan for keeping Chiang Kai-shek out of the way of the mah jong players of The Joy Luck Club.

Instead, she wrestles with her own place as the daughter of Chinese immigrants in American culture through the tales of four immigrant women and their daughters. That the tales are colored not only by the immigrant experience, but by the universal tug of war between generations, makes them so much the richer.

As Tan relates in her near-memoir, The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings, she didn’t intend The Joy Luck Club to be a novel at all. Her only previous fiction had been a few short stories, and she imagined her first book would be treated as a group of linked short stories. Instead, it emerged as a many faceted story of the great wave of Chinese immigrants fleeing a war-torn homeland for mid-twentieth for America, the Mountain of Gold.

Only, for friends Suyuan Woo, An-Mei Hsu, Lindo Jong, and Ying-Ying St. Clair, the beauty of the fabled Mountain of Gold proves as illusory as the beauties of the celebrated city of Kweilin where they live under siege during World War II.

“I dreamed about Kweilin before I ever saw it,” Suyuan tells her American-born daughter, Jing-mei “June” Woo. “. . .how quickly Kweilin lost its beauty for me. I no longer climbed the peaks to say, How lovely are these hills! I only wondered which hills the Japanese had reached.”

Thrown together with other wives whose husbands have gone to war, in the midst of a starving city, Suyuan forms a club to find a few hours of joy each week. “What was worse, we asked among ourselves, to sit and wait for our own deaths with proper somber faces? Or to choose our own happiness?”

The club binds the women through the horrors of war, their escape to America, and in Suyuan’s case, the breakup of her marriage to a brutal first husband. And in the next generation, the club will bind their daughters as well, as each unravels the central story of her mother‘s life.

For Tan, June Woo’s real life stand-in, that story was the revelation of her lost half-sisters, the children her mother was forced to leave behind during the war. (Fleeing for her life, Tan’s mother left three young daughters behind, although in the story these are condensed into a single pair of twin girls.)

“She touched each baby’s cheek and told her not to cry. She would go down the road to find them some food and would be back. And without looking back, she walked down the road, stumbling and crying. . . .”

What vampire slaying could top that?

For more about Tan, see

By the way, although Solander has gone the way of so many magazines, its publisher, The Historical Novel Society, still lives, holding its 2013 conference June 21-23 in St. Petersburg, Florida. More information and excerpts of the magazine are available at

(Next Wednesday, another look at a family’s trials, seen through a father’s eyes, in Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth.)

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