Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Why penguins, I wonder?

Rather than sensibly working on the books already in progress for my "From the Stacks" challenge, I decided to sample the single book on my list that I didn't actually choose and purchase myself: House of Exile by Nora Waln.

My copy of this is a Penguin book--a very old Penguin. Did you know that Penguin paperbooks first came out in 1935? They were color-coded according to genre. Fiction books had orange covers (A Farewell to Arms); crime fiction sported green covers (The Mysterious Affair at Styles). Biographies had dark blue covers, Drama had red, and Travel and Adventure books had cerise covers. My book, published in 1938, has one of the cerise covers.

The House of Exile is the true account of an American young woman who went to China and became deeply involved in the life of an ancient Chinese family. It's really astonishing how it came about. In 1804 (George Washington had died only five years previously), there are records showing commerce between a Pennsylvania merchant named Waln and a Chinese trader from this family. The family kept records and letters of their business even after trade with westerners was stopped. Over 100 years later, a member of the Chinese family was traveling in the US, and made a special point of seeking out the Waln family and inviting this young American woman to visit them as if she were a long-lost, treasured friend.

She want to China, and traveled deep into its interior to live with this family. They essentially adopted her, and she participated in all the household routines and celebrations, as well as submitting to their cultural customs. When the women of the house were forbidden to attend a carnival in the village, she submitted to the same regulations. She took turns doing the household tasks, wore Chinese attire (including the appropriate hairstyle for an unmarried woman), and learned the language.

The book offers a first-hand look at Chinese culture and customs of the early 20th century. The title, House of Exile, refers to the Chinese family. They were one branch of a well-known family, who had been established when the heir of the house had traveled to another region, taken a mistress, and settled there with her rather than returning to his ancestral home. This had taken place 650 years prior to the events in the book (during the rule of Mongol Kublai Kahn!!!!), but the families were still connected, and this particular branch of the family was considered to be in "exile." It staggers the mind. Chinese families practiced a type of ancestor-worship, and so they had records of their ancestors that went back for centuries.

I have no idea how much of that China is left, but the book is fascinating because of its accurate portrayal of Chinese life and customs as they were. It's sort of sad to read about the centuries of history during which the family had remained essentially the same, because their days are definitely numbered at the point the book was written. China was in turmoil, and the Japanese were poised to occupy the country. The living members of the quiet farming family were the last ones to experience the peace and harmony of generations. But the author didn't know all that when the book was written, so the story itself does not have that wistful tone. I'm bringing that to the reading myself because of what I know, nearly 70 years after the book was written.

I do keep wondering, however, why they picked penguins to identify this line of books, and who chose those colors?


At 4:32 PM , Blogger Orange Blossom Goddess (aka Heather) said...

Great review! This book sounds wonderful...definitely going onto my TBR Mountain!


At 1:35 PM , Blogger Jennifer said...

That does sound interesting. Thanks.

At 12:42 AM , Blogger Janice (5 Minutes for Mom) said...

thanks for the thorough review - it sounds interesting for sure.

So strange to read it now knowing the history that has happened since the author wrote it.


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