11/27/14

Spring Pearl: the Last Flower

Author: Lawrence Yep

Illustrator: Kazuhiko Sano

Publishing Year: 2002

Setting:  Canton, China, 1857

Plot

Recently orphaned, Spring Pearl receives an offer to live with the Sung family, as the patriarch was life-long friends with her father. From the start, his wife and three daughters make it clear what they think of Spring Pearl: she's a classless, uncouth, uncivilized girl, only worth their time and charity because the father insists. Spring Pearl's parents didn't keep servants, having neither the money nor the inclination to do so, never bound her feet (her mother refused to put her through that pain), and taught Spring Pearl masculine pursuits like calligraphy (her mother also tried to pass on her gift with embroidery, but Spring Pearl just couldn't make her fingers move that way). Some of what Mrs. Sung says about Spring Pearl's late parents is so rude that Spring Pearl nearly leaves in favor of begging on a street corner somewhere, but Mr. Sung intervenes.

Spring Pearl isn't so sure he's done her a favor, considering that no one else in the house, servants included, likes her at all. While she's grateful for a roof over her head and the certainty of eating every day, it's hard to love with so much scorn and hatred aimed at her. Even Spring Pearl beats the son in several games (that he insisted on playing) resulting in his younger sisters winning many up things from him, the sisters still look down on Spring Pearl, and the brother manages to as well. The servants have also been making bets on how long it will be before Spring Pearl is kicked out. Mrs. Sung has Spring Pearl do sewing to earn her keep, but she's miserable at even simple projects. The only thing Spring Pearl enjoys is working on the neglected garden where she transplants a flower from her mother, and even that seems ruined when Mr. Sung has several influential men over to discuss the high taxes imposed by the government because of the threat of war with the British and French. They laugh at Mr. Sung for having his guest do servant work, and comment that no man will ever want to marry her.

Surprisingly, it's Mrs. Sung who lifts Spring Pearl's spirits. She reveals that she was raised by farmers, and is happy to see the garden improving (she does tell Spring Pearl to wear a hat outdoors in future, for her complexion). She also agrees that Spring Pearl has been honestly trying her best to seek but it simply doesn't work for her. Instead, Mrs. Sung has Spring Pearl start helping with business correspondence, an unusual thing for women to do in that time and place, let alone a twelve-year-old girl. Spring a Pearl is happy to have found a bit of acceptance.

The very next day, Mr. Sung is arrested on treason charges. Spring Pearl and the one servant who's been nice to her, nicknamed Doggy, (possibly because the longer she stays with the Sungs, the more money he wins in bets from the other servants) are able to visit him, bringing him some clothes and food. Spring Pearl has to give up the last thing her mother embroidered--her jacket--as a bribe to get in. Mr. Sung has been tortured in an attempt to force him to sign a confession. He instructs Spring Pearl not to tell the family about his condition, but they see right through her when she tries to comply. Spring Pearl is surprised to see the class-obsessed siblings band together to protect their home and family. A short time later, the Chinese government admits that it's outgunned, and allows the foreigners to trade their items, including opium. The local governor also releases Mr. Sung back to his family, and gets the jacket back to Spring Pearl.

But the troubles aren't over yet. Looter and rioters, both Chinese and foreign, roam the city. Spring Pearl speaks and understands English well, affording the Sung family some protection from the law-abiding foreign soldiers. She also happens to know a young man leading a raid on the Sung household, stopping a looting attack that would have left the family in poor shape, financially  and physically. It takes about a month for the unrest to calm, though small pockets of violence still exist.

One day when Spring Pearl is tending the garden, Doggy tells her to come see the family. Their demeanor is harsh, and at first Spring Pearl thinks she's being sent away. But it's an act: she's being welcomed into the family as a daughter. She retreats to the garden to marvel at this. Doggy tells her that his uncle is starting a new business venture with the foreign traders, and they need someone who can help translating. With the new international trade, they're willing to make Spring Pearl a partner in the business. She doesn't answer him, too surprised at the offer: just a few months ago she was a penniless orphan. Now she's adopted into a wealthy family, with an offer to make her own way in the world.

Then and Now: A Girl's Life

China has long been a country steeped in tradition. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, it also largely kept to itself. But after the being defeated by Great Britain and France in the 1840s' and 1850s' Opium Wars, China became a major player in world trade (this is not say the Opium Wars were good; their impetuous was Great Britain's desire to sell the addictive drug to China). Many Chinese men traveled to the United States, usually to build railroads. With China's borders opened, some traditions fell away--in the case of foot binding, this was a good thing. But even today boys are often valued higher than girls, and with restrictions on family size, female infanticide and sex-selective abortions happen. Fortunately there are many people in other countries willing to take baby Chinese into their families, offering a better option to the "problem" of having a girl.

Misc

Dedicated to "Felicity, Cory, and Lee, and all their many 'cousins' in this brave new world."

Yep wrote an author's note for the end of the book, telling how he learned Chinese history from his aunts, both familial and honorary.

Spring Pearl's father was fond of saying that receiving a gift is an art. He's not wrong.

Over the course of the book, Spring Pearl learns that Doggy does like her, bets aside. He respects her street smarts, and appreciates that she's not stuck-up.

Because Mrs. Sung's heritage is part Hakka, an ethnic minority, her feet were never bound and she didn't bind her daughters' feet, something that embarrasses them when they're overly-concerned with appearances in the beginning of the book.

Today is Thanksgiving in the US. I'm thankful there are only three more of these books. While they're interesting and I am even considering buying myself copies, it takes a long time to review them. The History Mysteries are also good; better than the historical character mysteries, and worlds better than the Baby-sitter Club mysteries.

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