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April 15, 2024

Review in Haiku: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

By Katrina Stonoff

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

Foot-bound, homebound girls,
"old-sames," write on secret fan
to stay friends for life.

This novel is a veritable time machine, and for the hours I spent reading it, I became Lily.

Which is rather astonishing since she was born in 1823 in a remote province of China, had her feet bound when she was 7 years old, and lived her entire life (with the exception of three months as a refugee) in the upstairs women's rooms of two homes.

It's hard to decide which of the fascinating details to share with you. There's food: cubes of taro deep fried, coated in melted sugar and served with cold water to cool and crack the liquid sugar. There's clothing: red sleeping slippers considered so sexually stimulating against white skin that a woman dared not expose them.

But I'll choose footbinding: a process that left her with "golden lilies:" feet only three inches long on which a woman swayed rather than walked. Though the process was excruciating (toes were pinned under the foot, and the girl forced to walk on them until the bones broke), if done perfectly, it increased a young girl's worth and status. Thus Lily, daughter of a poor farmer, weds the headmaster of the largest town in the county.

I picked this book because I was interested in the agent who represented it, but it's a universal story, set in an exotic culture that has vanished.

Snow Flower centers around the contracted friendship between two girls. As laotangs, or "old-sames," Lily and Snow Flower forge a relationship closer and more intimate (at least emotionally) than a marriage. Nearly housebound (by their tiny feet as much as culture), the friends keep in touch by nu shu, a secret women's writing painted on fans and embroidered into handkerchiefs.

Almost as interesting as the novel itself are the author's notes at the end. When Lisa See went to Jiangyong County in the Hunan Province to do research in 2002, she was told she was only the second foreigner to visit, and the region remains closed to outsiders. She was able to meet Yang Huanyi, the last, surviving original nu shu writer: a woman who described her footbinding, her marriage ceremony, and her "sworn sisters."

At her wedding, Yang Huanyi was told, "Marrying (off) a daughter is like throwing out a cup of water." Only sons were honored and cherished: a value system I find abhorrent (at least partly because I suspect my father leaned that way).

But the real beauty of Snow Flower is the rich, detailed texture of sisterhood. Although despised in childhood as extra mouths and valued in womanhood only as the mothers of sons, women created a subculture for themselves, a culture that honored sisterhood, women's arts, and their personal relationships.

I am glad my parents did not bind my feet or marry me out to a man I'd never met or move me into his home as the lowest ranking member, but a part of me longs for a laotang, or at least a sworn sisterhood.

I have only one criticism, and it's small, but important.

I read a book several years ago about Time Travel (wish I could remember the name of it!). It was a library book, and probably long out of print, but it included sepia-tone photographs and was written to make you wonder whether it was real. According to that book, one could travel through time by creating a setting that was so believable it tricked the body into going there. Uh, going then.

The characters in that book rented a flat in Manhattan that overlooked Central Park and remodeled it to be exactly like it might have been in the 1890s. They dressed the main character in period clothes, etc., and if the illusion was complete enough to convince the body, he was transported in time. But if something happened to remind him that it was an illusion, he was immediately, abruptly returned to the 20th Century. Even the smallest detail out of sync, like finding a copper penny in the lining of his jacket, would vault him rudely into his own time.

How does this apply? Well, as I read, I lived in 1800s China. The illusion was so complete, I traveled back. I ate what Lily ate, smelled what she smelled, felt what she felt. Until I read, "But no woman should live longer than her children. It is against the law of nature."

Then the scene began to blur. Everything except the copper penny in my hand became indistinct and faded away, and I was sitting in my modern kitchen, bright with electric lights, reading a book and talking to my husband.

It's likely this statement won't vault most readers into the 21st century, like it did me, but the fact is: that is a very modern sentiment. Until the mid-1900s, if mothers survived childbirth, they expected to outlive some if not most (or all) of their children. I've a passion for reading pioneer diaries, and all of them express their hopes for the children with the caveat, "if he lives" or "if she survives childhood." Until modern water systems, immunizations and penicillin came into play, babies died at an alarming rate. And children dying young, in fact, was the law of nature as often as not.

But that's a small detail, and once I handed that penny to my husband, I went joyfully back to China, a hundred years gone, to see what happened next to Snow Flower and Lily.

-- Katrina Stonoff

Article © Katrina Stonoff. All rights reserved.
Published on 2006-10-09
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