Bette Bao Lord

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Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

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There is cause to have high hopes for Bette Bao Lord's historical fiction, "Spring Moon: A Novel of China." If nothing else, there is the Prologue, set in 1892, in which Plum Blossom, the slave girl of the young Spring Moon, bitterly laments the news that she is to be given away [and commits suicide]….

Not only is this incident the stuff of folk tales, it also artfully prefigures the larger action of the novel. It puts a symbolic curse on the House of Chang that will not be redeemed by 100 years of violent history. It is also the first in a series of anti-traditional acts that all together can be seen as China's experience in the 20th century.

And as well as this prologue and its dramatic aftermath, Mrs. Lord has a number of other promising episodes to work with…. Yet somehow all this promise is never quite fulfilled….

[The] narrative of "Spring Moon" often has a peculiar quality of half-hearted gesture, as if it were signaling its story instead of rolling up its sleeves and acting it out. Sometimes there is a mood of elegy so overpowering that we feel as if the events of the story died before they ever had a chance to happen.

There are several possible explanations for this narrative velleity. One of them is the degree to which Mrs. Lord is bent on celebrating the traditional Chinese past, particularly the importance of family ties and the grace of the rituals that tied one generation to the next. She achieves this celebration quite beautifully at times, but in the process the past has trouble existing as a living present.

Another possible explanation is the extent to which history overwhelms Mrs. Lord's characters. There is a detailed chronology of actual public events in the back of the book, which I had the bad luck to discover just as I was beginning it. There are italicized summaries of pertinent history at the beginninig of each chapter. Thus, when … the Chang family's Communist connections have been discovered by the Kuomintang, our reaction is to shrug and reassure ourselves, "It doesn't matter. Lustrous Jade and her husband will escape on the Long March. The rest of the family will make it to Hong Kong." In her Epilogue, Mrs. Lord admits to being something of a fatalist. Perhaps she has given historical fate too much of the upper hand here.

There is one other clue that too much history may be the source of the novel's problem. In an interview … Mrs. Lord explains that she had originally meant to write a nonfiction account of her family's history…. But Chinese politics remained too uncertain to risk calling attention to her clan in this way. So she decided to novelize the story, figuring the rest would be easy.

It wasn't at all, of course, as she soon discovered. The biggest problem, she admits, was explaining why, her characters would act or feel a particular way. This strongly suggests that her story came first in Mrs. Lord's imagination, and that her characters' feeling were subsequently tailored to fit this story. Perhaps next time she should try it the other way around. Maybe she ought to discover her characters first, and then see what they do as a consequence of who they are.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "Books of the Times: 'Spring Moon'," in The New York Times (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 2, 1981, p. 25.

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