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Blogger Flannery muses on The Jade Peony and its subtle history lessons

Hello, fellow readers.

Happy Monday. I hope you managed to grab at least an hour or two in the company of one of our five books this past weekend. Cold weather + a warm blanket + a great book = perfect Saturday afternoon.

As for me, the planets aligned in my favour — no plans, no laundry, no nothing. On Sunday, I spent a good chunk of time curled up with The Jade Peony. I don't think Wayson Choy could have picked a more dramatically engaging era within which to set his novel. Events unfold in Vancouver's Chinatown, spanning the 1930s and '40s — there's a wealth of historical material brought to bear on his characters' lives. The Great Depression, the Second World War — it's a lot to tackle as a writer. The timeline also provides a great deal of conflict for Choy's three young narrators, Jook-Liang, Jung-Sum and Sekky, to digest. Not only is each one dealing with the greater world, they're simultaneously trying to sort out their confusing, individual, internal realities.

I don't want to give anything away but were you as moved by Jung-Sum's story as I was? (I'm talking mainly about the events of Chapter 6.) The execution was so subtle — his youth limits greater self-knowledge about the feelings he's experiencing — that I had to reread a few key passages. I'm really hoping Dr. Samantha Nutt brings up this bittersweet chapter in her defence of the novel.

To his credit, Choy's historical backdrop never feels like a history lesson, but rather an indication of his authorial skill. His near-invisible technique also suits my preference. I don't have a mind for dates and facts. I'm like a little kid; in order to fully appreciate its significance, I need history to resonate, to impart its monumental largesse through characters, legends and fables. I need an emotional attachment before I become intellectually curious about anything.

I'm ashamed to admit this, but I needed go outside of the novel and into the world of facts and figures to further understand the significance of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923 and the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885. They're only briefly mentioned in the book, but their influence on all of Choy's characters is felt throughout.

Here's what I did know going into the novel. I knew that many impoverished Chinese labourers came to Canada in the late 19th century to help build the Canadian Pacific Railway. I knew the job was dangerous and thankless, but I didn't quite understand just how thankless it was until I read about the Immigration Act and the Chinese Exclusion Act that followed nearly 30 years later. Legislated racism and discrimination, the callous exploitation of the impoverished — my supplementary reading gave new depth to Jook-Liang's father's conviction that the "...Chinese in Vancouver must help the Chinese..." because "no one else will."

The Jade Peony has been referred to as a coming-of-age novel in three parts. And it's certainly true with regard to Jook-Liang, Jung-Sum and Sekky. But there's an added dimension to the story too. If a country can be likened to a living, breathing thing, I think that Choy is revealing something of our own growth as a nation, albeit at a pretty ruthless, awkward stage.

This week on the site we're spotlighting The Jade Peony, so drop in often to get the inside scoop on the novel and its author.



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