Saturday, December 09, 2006

The House of Exile by Nora Waln

I finally finished this book, which I wrote about earlier. As the book progressed, it became more difficult to read. Nora Waln's matter-of-fact telling of truly terrifying events did not make reading about the terrifying events any easier.

This was a turbulent period in China's history, and violence and anti-foreign sentiment made life difficult for westerners. There was a strong pro-war movement among students and young people, and they tried through various means to force the government to declare war on Japan. The Japanese were already bombing parts of China. More than once, Nora was unable to travel freely in China, or to visit her Chinese "family."

The book concludes in a curious way, which leaves the reader wanting desperately to know what happened after. The final chapter is a sort of book-end to the opening chapter, in which Nora travels via canal to reach the Lin family home. She finishes the book with a similar journey, accompanied by the same people, as she travels back for a visit. Because the book was published in 1935, and we all know that Japan did indeed invade China (imprisoning many westerners), one wants to know what became of Nora and her family--both her English husband and daughter and her Chinese family. For that, I suppose I will have to find other books.

I've always enjoyed Pearl Buck's books about this period in China, and reading another perspective was interesting. Pearl Buck focuses so closely on single individuals, while Nora Waln includes broad information about trends in Chinese culture and thought. Whatever position her husband held, it was important. They received an invitation to Chang Kai Shek's wedding and met Charles Lindbergh when he visited China and used his piloting skills to help rescue flood victims.

There are so many interesting things in this book it's hard to choose what to share. One of the most interesting things I learned about was Shameen. When the British wanted China to give (sell) them some land so that they could maintain a presence in China, the emperor gave them Shameen. Which was a sandbar. The British accepted the sandbar, and every ship that traveled to China carried a load of soil in the hold. They built the sandbar up into an island, planting trees around the rim to secure the soil. They built homes and businesses on Shameen, which was a center for foreign traders in Canton until the Japanese invaded. Nora and her husband lived there for several years, and it is still in existence today. This was not the only sandbar or swamp China gave to foreigners--it was their standard policy. You want land?...this is what you can have. And in every case, the foreigners built it up and developed it. Most foreigners seemed to welcome Chinese refugees into their relatively safe territories during times of upheaval.

I just discovered that Nora Waln wrote another book that deals with the period immediately following this one. After all those years in China, she somehow landed in Nazi Germany from 1935 to 1939, and shares many details of life under the Nazis before the war began. I think that's going on my wish list. Her frank, factual style, uncolored by biased language, actually makes the events she writes about stand out starkly, as if in relief. She doesn't tell us that the Chinese were brutal; she merely states, in passive voice, than an official was beaten with bamboo rods so severely that he later lost his life.

I never heard of Nora Waln until I was given this book, and now I'm interested to read more of what she wrote. She later became a "war correspondent," writing about the Korean War and the Cold War (among other things). I'm glad my first introduction to her was through this, the book that covers the beginning of her colorful, well-traveled life. We could probably use a few more cold-blooded observers of her type today.


This was my second book in the From the Stacks challenge. I'm nearly finished with the third, and I suspect much of January will be given up to finishing the last two.


At 12:08 PM , Blogger wangfleur said...

I like this book too. It tells me more about my country than any other chinese book, though in English. Chinese too is all about subtlety, elegance, and beauty.
I am interested in cold war too. Very happy to meet with people sharing the same interest.

Flora From China


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