December 19, 2006 > My Half of the Sky
My Half of the Sky
A Book Review
by Robert A. Garfinkle
"My Half of the Sky"
By Jana McBurney-Lin
Komenar Publishing; 537 pages; $24.95
Though set in emerging modern China, "My Half of the Sky" is actually a universal tale of trying to live both within the confines of somebody's deep-rooted cultural traditions, upheld by the older generations, and struggles by the younger generation to create their own freedom from those constraints. Bay Area writer Jana McBurney-Lin handles this struggle with great finesse and keeps you turning the pages to see how Li Hui will make it in a world that seems stacked against her.
Li Hui has recently graduated from a university with a teaching certificate, but is unable to land a job with enough prestige to satisfy her demanding father. Without a teaching position, she is forced to return home to her village and search for a private tutoring position. In the meantime, her parents have arranged for her to marry an older, yet successful professor in a distant land (Singapore). They also arrange for her to take a job working in town in a struggling teashop with an overbearing manager named Feng Gu.
Life in town is changing with a new McDonalds and Queen Dairy (Dairy Queen) opening up and competing against such traditional businesses as the teashop. Li Hui convinces Feng Gu that they need to break the tradition of selling only hot tea and begin to also sell "cold tea with hard rocks" (ice tea). This is to compete with these American businesses that are attracting customers with their cold drinks.
One of the things that I like about this book is how the author used character descriptions to name the minor players, such as Mr Construction Worker, Mr. Farmer, Madam Paper Cutter, and Mr. Blue Pants. Mr. Blue Pants gets a real name, Chan Hai, after Li Hui is introduced to him and she works to make him her husband. Falling in love with a man not approved by her father, defies her father and all those pesky traditions. The main aspect of this book is whether Li Hui will make her own life and be happy, or will she bend to centuries-old traditions, thus making everyone else happy instead.
This book is not just for those of Chinese descent, but is universal in its appeal. I am not Chinese, but was fascinated and drawn into the Asian world McBurney-Lin created. You feel the hustle and bustle and grit of Liu Hui's city. This world is laden with people struggling to eke-out a living, including Li Hui and those who want to use her for their own advantage. Even her parents want her to marry for their financial gain and prestige. You feel the heat of summer and the cold of winter. You also learn much about the culture of rural China.
McBurney-Lin lived in Asia for thirteen years and reported on life there for several newspapers and magazines. She has brought her knowledge of the Chinese culture to life in her debut novel. I highly recommend this book and I expect more great works from McBurney-Lin. In September 2006, it was announced that "My Half of the Sky" was placed in the pool of books being considered for the Pulitzer Prize. That is a pretty good recommendation, too.