February 21, 2010
Reading Canada: Jade Peony vs Moody Food
Alright, Round 3 of my attempt to get through all ten books on the Canada Reads and Canada Reads Independently lists by March 1st. It’s going better than I thought! Not only am I making actual headway (though with 4 books to finish in the next week it might not look that way) but the order I’ve chosen to read the books in, based on a complex grab-the-book-nearest-you system, is causing the books to form neat little pairings that bring out like themes.
Jade Peony and Moody Food, for instance, both turned out to be books for boys. I’ve always been sensitive to gender roles in literature, probably because I’ve always felt that my favored brand of tough-girl heroine-ism is chronically underrepresented. I go into every book looking for that strong-headed, righteous girl to cheer for and follow, and in both Nikolski and Wild Geese I certainly, refreshingly, found it. By Good to a Fault and Hair Hat I’d descended into the realm of prissy and confused self-victimized women, and now in Jade Peony and Moody Food I find women have vanished altogether into the background. Don’t misunderstand me: both books are perfectly fair to women in most respects, but it isn’t really about them. These are books about boys.
Jade Peony, set in Vancouver’s Chinese community in the 1930s and 1940s, depicts life as seen through the eyes of three Chinese-Canadian kids who are forging new hybrid identities. Aside from the perils of the immigrant experience coupled with the usual agonies of adolescence, we have extra tensions provided by the Second Sino-Japanese War followed immediately by World War II. Though issues of immigrant identity and coming-of-age are certainly boy’s and girl’s issues, the addition of the wars into the mix fixes the characters’ focuses into men’s territory: Us vs Them, Politics and Enemies, Upheaval and Independence. The three major women in the book, Jook-Liang, Poh-Poh and May, all have great potential as leading literary ladies but instead they are the sacrificed, the aspects of society which have to bend and give in the wake of war.
Liang’s story was probably the weakest of the three for this reason. She is told she is good for nothing and though she resolutely resists the idea of limitation she nevertheless is treated by Choy as a tiny innocent lens through which to tell the story of the Elders of the community. She has no agency whatsoever in her story’s climax, when her Monkey Man is taken from her to play a basically political role in returning bones to China. For the remainder of the book, she is relegated to the background where she lives an apparently typical teenaged Canadian life.
Her grandmother, Poh-Poh, is certainly a stronger force in the book but nevertheless represents the outgoing traditions and beliefs. She is briefly vindicated as a ghost in Sekky’s story, but it still took her death and disappearance to bring that about, and ultimately her death is the catalyst that brings Sekky out of the woman’s realm and into the bad world of boys, fights, soldiers and adventures.
Poor May is the ultimate casualty of the boy’s world. I won’t utterly spoil the book for you, but her fate hardly seemed to be her own. Instead it was the byproduct of the fights, the enmity, the side-taking and the wars.
I did, however, love the book.
I can’t say as much for Moody Food. This book was so far off into the boy’s world that I seriously considered somewhere around page 60 handing it off to my father to read for me. I felt very strongly right from the beginning that this wasn’t a book intended for me. “Buckskin” Bill and Thomas Graham’s descent into drug-fueled musical ecstasy was, right from the beginning, a teenaged boy’s fantasy taken too far. To Robertson’s credit , the only people who seem unaware of how utterly immature Bill and Thomas are being are Bill and Thomas. The supporting cast are rolling their eyes from the very beginning. Late nights, early mornings, drinking binges, wacky hyjinx, harder and harder drugs and, through it all, the search for musical epiphany – man, I knew these guys in high school.
But Robertson didn’t invent the genre and what he’s portraying seems to be an actual decade of male hormones allowed to run rampant. This book drove home for me why I’ve never really liked the idea of the 60s. For a decade that spawned so much positive change – women’s rights, minority rights, environmental awareness, social liberalization, individual freedom – the actual stories on the ground so often seem to be undermined by the participants’ inability to actually understand what they were doing. The positive changes seem like afterthoughts of the central experiment, which was to live a life of hedonism. The great hangover of the 60s seems to have come when a generation of teengaers finally woke up one morning and realized they had to actually work for change. And so most of them hung up their hats and gave up – because effort, puh, yah right.
So my distaste for the setting was not Robertson’s fault. But I have at least one bone to pick with him, and that is over the treatment of Thomas and Heather’s relationship. At first it’s pathetic and seems doomed to fail, but as the book turns darker the relationship grows abusive. Only once does the narrator takes his eyes off the thrilling story of Thomas long enough to cast judgement on what he’s doing to his girlfriend, and the result is two airy half-pages of reflection and no action before we go back to the story. And this is before Thomas starts Heather on the road to hard drug dependence. Where is everyone else? Okay, we can buy that Bill is too strung out and spineless to stand up to his idol over the treatment of “his” woman, but Christine? Kelorn? Slippery? What’s going on here? Why is everyone content to let this woman be the sacrifice to Thomas’s musical genius?
Moody Food is definitely at the bottom of my list for this challenge so far. It was engrossing, a genuine page-turner, and uncomfortably evocative of a seriously messed-up time. But so very not my thing.
Counting down the days and pages – two more pairings to go!