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(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Coffin Tree is the story of a young Burmese woman who leaves her country, where civil war is impending, to arrive in New York City in October, 1969, along with her elder brother, Shan. Their father, a revolutionary, had been in hiding in the hills of Burma for three years, but he manages to arrange for the safe departure of his two children. In exile in America, the narrator recounts the story of her childhood in “monsoon country,” the traumatic early years in New York City, the death of her brother, and the time she spends in a psychiatric ward after attempting suicide.

When The Coffin Tree opens, the narrator’s tyrannical maternal grandmother has just died, and she is left in the care of elderly maiden aunts. Her father is absent, presumably involved in the continuing Revolution of the Hilltribes, to which he has pledged his life. Readers are introduced to the family members in the narrator’s home: Auntie Lily and Auntie Rosie, whose collective primary function is to run the household; the inertia-gripped Uncle, a glutton; and the narrator’s adored half-brother, Shan.

There is a military coup one day, and the narrator’s father has fled to the hilly north. Although the tension is almost palpable, from the narrator’s matter-of-fact description of the murder of “Prince R’s” son to her recounting of her aunts’ efforts to procure food at the markets, there seems to be a suspension of time and space. The day-to-day has become the glue of existence. Before, such trivial details formed the invisible backdrop to life’s worthier moments; now, however, the mundane takes center stage, as if by necessity, so that sense can be made from ending up, as the aunts do, with two pairs of men’s undershorts instead of sugar, salt, oil, or aspirin. Uncle’s inertia turns into infectious fatalism, and the household becomes entrapped in a world explained by “must be!” Suddenly, two or three years after the coup, word comes that the narrator’s father has arranged for the flight of his two children, presumably to a safer place.

The narrator and her brother arrive in New York City. Fleeing the upheaval in their homeland, it would seem to the refugees that festive, year-end New York City is the perfect haven. Instead, it is the setting for their dissolution. The traumas of flight and severance from homeland are now juxtaposed against the escalating problems of being in a strange new city. When the promised funds from Burma do not materialize, the pair face unaccustomed poverty. Humiliated and penniless, they manage to reach a journalist acquaintance of their father’s, Benjamin Lane. During a year spent in the journalist’s basement, the narrator and Shan reach their nadir: Clinging to their pride, they decline to have their meals with the Lanes; instead, they sneak food from the Laneses’ kitchen to maintain the illusion that they...

(The entire section is 746 words.)