Sometimes when a particular book touches me deeply, I find it difficult to write an impartial review. Such is the case with Letters in the Jade Dragon Box by Gale Sears.
The story begins simply enough in the city of Hong Kong. Fifteen-year-old Chen Wen-shan goes to school as usual, but the announcement over the school’s loud speaker that Mao Tse-tung is dead changes everything. Reactions are strong; some people cry; some rejoice, and some are stunned. Her teacher appears agitated and school is dismissed early. Turmoil abounds and people gather in the streets to talk and worry.
Wen-shan receives a surprise invitation to dinner at her friend, Jun-jai’s home, where there is a feeling of hope and gladness. A few days later she and her great uncle, Zhao, with whom she lives, receive an even stranger invitation to the home of the British curator of the museum in Kowloon.
The curator, Mr. Smythe, after a great deal of formality, presents the two with a carved wooden chest that has been sneaked out of mainland China. Uncle Zhao recognizes the box as one belonging to his brother, a once famous Chinese artist. Wen-Shan must exercise great patience before the box is opened and she and her uncle discover it contains two kinds of scrolls, letters from her mother and paintings by her grandfather.
There has been little communication between the girl and her great uncle in the ten years she has lived with him, and Wen-shan knows little of her parents and grandfather. There has been no contact with them and she doesn’t even know if they are still alive. She remembers nothing of the first five years of her life, and her uncle never speaks of the past. Together they decide he will open one of the paintings at a time, and she will open one of the letters addressed to her. Since they are numbered they will proceed in numerical order. This is the beginning of their learning to communicate with each other.
The paintings bring a flood of memories to the old man and introduce the girl to the land of her past. The letters tell Wen-shan of the life of her mother and grandparents, of her mother’s marriage, and the terrible burden placed on her family by Mao Tse-tung. It teaches her of the courage, the fears, the injustices endured by her people, and the threats to her family’s lives.
Contrasting with the letters and pictures from mainland China is the everyday life of a young Chinese girl and her friends in modern Hong Kong. We learn too of the military career and emotionally crippling losses in the old uncle’s life and his modern life as an important executive in a British businessman’s furniture store and the bond formed between the two men of highly opposing backgrounds that extends to Wen-shan. We learn too, of the events that led Uncle Zhao to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, then his slipping into inactivity in the Church.
This is a remarkable story of contrasts, of faith, of family ties, loyalty, and of enduring love. Hatred, fear, the drive for survival, superstition, and domination all play a role. It arouses deep anger over the injustices perpetrated by Mao Tse-tung in his ruthless determination to subjugate this vast country into one mindless machine with him as their only god. His indifference to life and the value of individuals is stunning as his cruelty and murders far exceeds the atrocities committed by another megalomaniac, Adolph Hitler.
Along with the terribleness of Mao’s reign of terror, his red guards, and the Gang of Four, there is gentleness, honor, an appreciation for beauty, and a sense of timeless endurance that seeps through the pages of this novel (which is based on the lives of several real people, including the first missionaries and members of the Church in Hong Kong).
There is adventure and excitement as Wen-shan’s own journey from mainland China to Hong Kong is revealed. An emotional journey is undertaken as the reader, along with the young Chinese girl, discovers why she was abandoned by her parents and learns to appreciate Uncle Zhao and her Chinese heritage. Friendship and kindness become virtues she learns to appreciate.
Jade Dragon Box is a complex story with complex characters. It is written in deceptively simple language that carries nuances and whisperings of the past like music on the wind. I love the way the characters grow and develop in this story. I also appreciate the author’s ability to write of a dismal and painful piece of history without allowing the message of the book to be gloomy and depressing-or to degenerate into mere backfill. It’s a tremendous tribute to man’s ability to endure and hope for a better tomorrow.
Gale Sears is an award-winning author, known for her historical accuracy and intensive research. For this book she added a trip to China to supplement her research. She received a BA from BYU and a master’s degree in theater arts from the University of Minnesota. She is the author of the bestseller The Silence of God and five other highly acclaimed novels. She and her husband live in Salt Lake City, Utah, and are the parents of two children.
* * *
Letters in the Jade Dragon Box by Gale Sears, published by Deseret Book, hardback, 296 pages, $24.99, also available on Kindle and CD.