- Posted by Johanna on April 12, 2014 at 6:52 pm
- Category: Books and Prose
- CREDITS: by James McMullan
- PUBLISHER: Algonquin Young Readers; $19.95 US
I found this memoir, presented as a book for older children, disappointing, although older adult readers might get more out of it.
Each two-page spread consists of text memories accompanied by a watercolor illustration related to the incidents described. While the misty images might accurately represent the vagaries of memory, they weren’t specific enough for me to get a sense of the place and time from them. They’re stiff and remote, without conveying much emotion to this reader. I’m sure making this art meant a lot to the author, but that meaning isn’t carried through. Several of them, generic in approach, could have been set at any time or place, not specifically World War II China.
For that reason, I found the book better aimed at older readers, those who already have some idea of the time period portrayed. The writing is similarly light on emotion, although full of disturbing events when you stop to think about them. James’ father was British, living in China to run the family’s business. His grandparents, originally missionaries, founded an orphanage for girls who would be otherwise left to die; they became workers producing embroidered goods that the family sold.
No consideration or discussion is given to the geopolitics of Brits coming in and making money off the abandoned girls. A sentence early on talks about how these girls were more desirable as brides than others because they had a valuable skill and could speak English, which I read as an implied justification. James and his family led a privileged life, with servants and a social club, but I wondered how others saw them.
The one page that describes the author’s parents meeting and marrying is full of unexplained questions. His father went to Canada to be a musician, where he married a divorcee who already had two kids, at which point he went back to the family business. I wanted to know about the blended family and how they got along, but the other kids disappear from the book with a brief mention of being sent to study in Canada. I wondered if the father was disappointed by his change in future plans, or if the family accepted this older, divorced woman at a time when that was a scandalous status, but no information is provided there, either.
The main meat of the book begins a third of the way in, as the Japanese army takes over the Chinese town when James is four. The company continues operating with the permission of the occupiers. Four years later, James’ family finally attempts to leave, with the mother and son sailing from Shanghai to the United States before voyaging to Canada. The father joins the British Army. The author doesn’t go into detail, but it’s clear that the mother has a drinking problem, a desire for status she no longer has the money to support, and anxiety over her disarranged life. James goes to school for a while in India, before winding up again in Canada and finally, the US.
I found myself wishing for a differently focused story. The mother strikes me as a more interesting character than the author, but we don’t find out what happened to her or get much insight into her feelings or choices. The author has his struggles — he’s thought effeminate because he’s not good at sports and prefers art — but we don’t get much idea of his emotions either. It’s a surface presentation, with “and then we went here” substituting for insight. (The publisher provided a review copy.)