When Landon learned of two autobiographical accounts, long out of print, written by Anna Leonowens, she decided to combine them into a biography that focused on Anna’s work as tutor for King Mongkut of Siam. Landon hoped to realize her goal of introducing the modern reader to the life of an amazing woman who made a lasting contribution to the country of Siam, known later as Thailand.
Having spent ten years in Thailand (from 1927 to 1937), the author acknowledges that the country is vastly different from the nineteenth century Siam that Anna experienced. The cruelty that Anna encountered is not exaggerated, however, for much reform had taken place by the time that Landon lived in Thailand.
Anna’s life and work in Siam were filled with important cross-cultural insights. She described her reception as callous when she learned that the king had “forgotten” to have a house ready for her as had been promised; the harbormaster arranged Anna’s shelter for the night. The king’s thoughtless and erratic behavior was repeated time after time, and Anna learned that the freedom that she had taken for granted was not the norm in Siam. When she was treated disrespectfully, she decided not to grovel but to make it clear that she would not accept such treatment from royalty or from anyone else. In so doing, Anna actually gained respect and power in future days.
While Anna did not always understand Siamese customs, she wisely realized the need to learn them, as her efforts to fit in were noticed and appreciated. For exam-ple, when her hostess, Khun Ying Phan, the head wife of the prime minister, invited Anna to see a play taken from the Ramayana, a poem sacred to Hindus, she was impressed when she learned that this foreign woman was already familiar...
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Other than Anna Leonowens’ own autobiographical account of her experiences in Siam as tutor to the royal family of Siam (Thailand), Landon’s biographical account is possibly the only one that deals realistically with the conditions under which Leonowens did her work. For the young adult who may have seen one or both of the film versions of the story (Anna and the King of Siam in 1946, starring Rex Harrison as the king, and The King and I in 1956, starring Yul Brynner), which make the account almost comical in places, this biography provides the true story of both the difficulties and the rewards of teaching the children and the young wives of King Mongkut.
In addition to providing insights about the teaching experience itself, a wealth of cultural information is included in an easy-to-read form for the younger reader. Thus, the book corrects many of the possible misconceptions formed upon viewing the films. Furthermore, the reader is able to trace the educational preparation of the crown prince of Thailand at a time when slavery was rampant and to appreciate how great the influence of Anna Leonowens was on his preparation to become king. Without that influence, King Chulalongkorn, considered to be one of Thailand’s greatest kings, could have had a very different, and less beneficent, reign.