Bette Bao Lord

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Katherine Paterson

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[In Spring Moon Lord uses] an introductory section at the beginning of each chapter. This section may relate a bit of history, folklore, a family story, or a few lines of poetry, but each selection helps the reader to understand what follows without having to call a halt to the story while one of the characters or the intrusive author himself delivers a pompous lecture…. [The selections] clarify and enrich the novel without seeming to interrupt it.

The problem of language is not quite so gracefully solved. First of all, there is the matter of names…. In this book, except in the cases of actual historical persons, surnames, which tend to be simple, are in Chinese, and given names, which are more complicated, are in translation. Thus instead of calling the characters Chang Chun Yue or Chang K'ang Neng, they are called Chang Spring Moon or Chang Noble Talent. Granted, it's a sort of mongrel solution and results in some rather stilted name-calling … but it does let us know at once who is doing what without having to flip back to check out identities.

Lord is less helpful when it comes to idiomatic phrases. Like anyone who knows a language, she simply can't or won't give up certain expressions…. [When] I read that Spring Moon pushed her cloth-bound feet into a pair of pink embroidered slippers and pulled on her "ta chin p'ao" and stepped out onto the gallery, I was at a loss to know what the child was wearing besides her shoes. (pp. 1-2)

People who think historical novels should serve up double portions of sex and gore may be puzzled by Spring Moon. The most tragic event in the book, one which harks back to the slave girl's death in the prologue, takes place off stage and is related afterwards in the style of proper Greek drama. This is typical of the restraint with which Lord has chosen to tell her story. When Spring Moon falls in love with her half-uncle, the scenes which other writers might feel the need to play to the purple hilt, Lord allows to occur behind closed doors…. [But] even while Lord maintains her dignity and her distance, she does make us care about her characters. Often it is impossible to know what political side to cheer for during these turbulent times with members of the family on opposing sides or no side at all, but this is just what Lord intends. It is the survival of the clan that matters and through them the incredible endurance of the Chinese people….

Lord is not a great philosopher of history or a great social anthropologist or even a great novelist, but she is a good storyteller, and novels like Spring Moon might wake us up to the fact that it is ultimately in our national interest to learn to care about the rest of the world. (p. 2)

Katherine Paterson, "From the Manchu to Mao: One Woman's Journey," in Book World—The Washington Post (©1981, The Washington Post), October 11, 1981, pp. 1-2

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