Canton Elegy: A Father's Letter of Sacrifice, Survival and Love by Stephen Jin-Nom Lee and Howard Webster

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Canton Elegy: A Father's Letter of Sacrifice, Survival and Love by Stephen Jin-Nom Lee and Howard Webster

Category: Autobiography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A letter from a father to his children, found in a Californian attic, tells of the events which shaped China in the twentieth century. It's compelling, life-affirming reading. Howard Webster popped into Bookbag Towers to chat to us.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 240 Date: October 2013
Publisher: Watkins Publishing
ISBN: 978-1780285733

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Stephen Jin-Nom Lee, known in his childhood as Ah Nom, was born early in the twentieth century in the village of Dai Waan in rural China. His father died when he was young and he lived with his grandmother, mother and 'Little Uncle', who was only a matter of months older than Ah Nom. They'd become friends as they grew older, but when his Grandfather returned after a long absence in America there as a distinct rivalry between the two. Then Grandfather revealed his reason for returning home - he intended to take the boys to America to be educated. It was a wonderful opportunity and Ah Nom left the village and his mother not knowing when he would see either again.

America was a wonderful opportunity and Stephen (as he was now known) graduated with a good degree, but racism was endemic and getting a job almost impossible, so he took the difficult decision to return to China - placing himself at the heart of the upheavals of the twentieth century. But first he would marry Lum Bo, known as Belle, and over the following years they would have four children - Amy, Rudy, Huey and Yvonne. He and Belle were first-hand observers of the Chinese Civil War and the Second World War, but fortunately managed to leave for America before the full impact of the Cultural Revolution was felt. But the family still had much to contend with - 'home' never seemed to be a settled point and at one point Belle was forced to walk for hundreds of miles with the four children when she escaped from Hong Kong.

There's a rather wonderful story behind this book. Howard Webster is married to Julianne Lee, granddaughter of Stephen Jin-Nom Lee. When she gave birth to twins in 2011 she was keen to take them to see her family in California and it was whilst she was there that the manuscript - found in an attic - was shown to Webster. He only read a few sentences before he realised what a gem he was holding in his hands. This was essentially a letter which Stephen Jin-Nom Lee had written for his children so that they could know how much he loved them.

Stephen's a wonderful narrator - truthful, factual and with an instinct for the telling phrase. Occasionally you suspect that he's teaching his children - across the years - by example, but it's done so genuinely and with such obvious love that you can only admire him for his concern. Above all though he's the master of the telling image, such as the procession when his grandfather returned to the village - what stuck in my mind was not the leather cases or the number of porters, but a crate of apples. The one which struck me most though is of young Stephen who would spend time as a boy on a ferry and if it rained he would use an old, black, gentleman's umbrella to shelter from the rain. It's a striking, almost filmic image and a compelling metaphor for the boy's life in the new country.

I very nearly didn't read this book as the title Canton Elegy suggested something sad or mournful but whilst the story has its share of loss and tragedy it's life affirming and impossible to read without somehow feeling better for having done so. I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

From a slightly later period we can recommend The Death of Mao: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Birth of the New China by James Palmer. You might also enjoy Burying the Bones: Pearl Buck in China by Hilary Spurling.

Buy Canton Elegy: A Father's Letter of Sacrifice, Survival and Love by Stephen Jin-Nom Lee and Howard Webster at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Canton Elegy: A Father's Letter of Sacrifice, Survival and Love by Stephen Jin-Nom Lee and Howard Webster at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Canton Elegy: A Father's Letter of Sacrifice, Survival and Love by Stephen Jin-Nom Lee and Howard Webster at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Canton Elegy: A Father's Letter of Sacrifice, Survival and Love by Stephen Jin-Nom Lee and Howard Webster at Amazon.com.


Bookinterviews.jpg Howard Webster was kind enough to be interviewed by Bookbag.

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