The Coffin Tree

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

In a striking and accomplished first novel, Wendy Law-Yone presents vivid pictures of Burma (where she lived until she was twenty), looks with wry irony at contemporary American customs and artifacts and creates a compelling central character whose experience transcends cultural barriers. The novel is permeated by death, ghosts, and the heavy burdens of the narrator’s personal and cultural heritage, yet it finally affirms life. The unfamiliar background is only one of the interesting ingredients. Law-Yone’s broader subjects are attachment and loss, the complex interweaving of isolation, individuality, and self-dependence, the continuity of personality, and the mature comprehension of the past that must occur if the central character—and the twentieth century urban human—is to adapt and survive.

The novel’s opening plunges at once and without explanation into the center of a complex family situation in Burma. The unnamed narrator, a girl of fourteen, does not supply the exposition that would make everything clear to Western readers but does give such a compelling view of her immediate situation that one automatically accepts her values and behavior. She lives with two elderly aunts, an uncle who stays with them to avoid responsibility for his own wife and children, a grandmother (who dies in the book’s opening passage), and a half brother, Shan, who is ten years her senior but seems—in his easy tears and casual irresponsibility—closer to childhood than does the narrator. Her own mother, who died at her birth, was a convert to Catholicism; the narrator attends a convent school run by Irish nuns. Her family is well-off if not wealthy; they live in a spacious compound inherited from a grandfather who was economic adviser to the last king before the Burmese monarchy was ousted. Her father became a revolutionary while at the university and commands a People’s Army that has temporarily seized power. Another coup sends him fleeing back to the hills. When the narrator is twenty, she and Shan are bundled onto a plane and sent to the United States.

Baffled by New York and too inhibited to take the help some Americans would be willing to give, the narrator nevertheless contrives ways to eat, learns to type, preserves her identity, and eventually secures an adequate clerical job. While she feels that she is mastering her new life, Shan is rootless and disoriented. Lacking the dreams and the social support Burma had supplied, he withdraws increasingly into fantasies and paranoia. The narrator, trapped by her sense of responsibility for her brother, endures two years of drudgery, anxiety, isolation, and repressed resentment while she tries to take care of him. By the time Shan dies, his psychic illness has infected his sister. Burdened by guilt and lack of purpose, cut off from Burma by her father’s death, she is committed to a mental hospital after a suicide attempt. The treatment she receives there may or may not do her any good, but the core of strength at the center of her personality allows her to reassert her independence and discover a way to meet life on her own terms.

The Coffin Tree, however, is not nearly so grim as the foregoing summary might suggest. The immediate pleasures of its tone grow from Law-Yone’s sharp eye for incongruous detail and from the narrator’s engaging personality. Even when she is a Burmese child conversing with her grandmother’s ghost, she is accessible. Her emotionally deprived childhood and her sudden flashes of boldness (despite the extreme timidity fostered by her cultural tradition) may remind the reader of the protagonist of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, 1847—and some readers may see their own experiences reflected in those of the narrator. Even people not suddenly faced by the differences between Mandalay and New York can hang up a telephone a dozen times rather than commit a message to an answering machine or can be too shy to question their hosts. Like Jane Eyre, also, the narrator can be desperately and refreshingly frank, as when she gets a job by telling the bemused interviewer, in answer to his stock question about her strongest and weakest points, that she dislikes work because she is lazy, forgetful, and was never trained for any kind of job but that, on the other hand, she is in terrible need, which might make her willing to learn.

With a combination of acceptance and wry detachment, the narrator sees both Burma and the United States with extraordinary clarity, and sometimes from slightly odd angles. Aunt Lily and Aunt Rosie, in Burma, remain girlish despite their white hair and missing teeth; there is “enough left, all in all, to flirt with the male masseur who came twice a week, and after he left to discuss celibacy as though the alternative were still an issue.” The signs in the mental hospital...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Coffin Tree explores a young woman’s growth into adulthood from the perspective of two cultures. The early chapters of part 1 examine the unnamed narrator’s childhood and adolescence in her native Burma. The narrator describes members of her extended family, beginning with her failing grandmother, who is depicted as haunting the family after she dies. The narrator leads a protected life in a household run by servants and older relatives, but her only significant emotional connection is to her older half brother, Shan, who tells her stories about his escapades and his dreams. A coup in the central government when she is seventeen disrupts their insulated life. Three years later, the narrator and Shan are ordered to flee to the United States by their father, a guerrilla leader who is in hiding.

The remaining chapters of part 1 detail the pair’s experience of culture shock and hardship when they first arrive in New York. Well educated but without practical skills, the narrator takes menial jobs in order to eke out a living for herself and Shan. Though they are taken in by a large family, the Lanes, the pair isolate themselves out of feelings of inadequacy and shame stemming from Shan’s growing paranoia. The narrator and Shan eventually separate to work in different states, but after two years Shan appears one day on her doorstep, sick and out of work The narrator cares for him but resents his weakness. Inadvertently, she fuels his illness by feeding him foods that are too rich. When Shan appears to have a heart attack, the narrator calls...

(The entire section is 641 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Coffin Tree gives evidence of the universality of certain women’s issues, particularly those related to identity formation, self-esteem, and dependence. It becomes clear as the novel unfolds that the narrator’s lack of self-worth derives from a lack of nurturing in childhood. From her bitter grandmother she only receives scorn, which causes her to feel guilt and self-loathing. The childishness of the narrator’s aunts prevents them from providing the guidance and support that she needs. Her intense longing for her dead mother indicates her need for love, as well as for a female role model. Equally significant is the narrator’s lack of attention from her father, whom she worships to no avail. She blames herself for his indifference, believing that he holds a grudge against her for her mother’s death in childbirth. At times, however, the narrator sees him clearly enough to resent his cruelty and to question his devotion to tribal people instead of to his family. Her anger toward him goes underground, only surfacing years later in her suicide attempt. Law-Yone clearly conveys that unresolved issues and emotions from childhood inevitably resurface in adulthood.

The narrator’s caretaking role with Shan is revealed to be a means of coping with her emotional deprivation. When Shan dies, the void that he leaves confronts her with the meaninglessness of the routines that govern her life. The novel suggests that the narrator’s recovery depends on finding her own reasons to live instead of relying on roles defined by others. In addition, the narrator must rethink her view of her father from an adult’s perspective in order to work through her anger and need for attention.

The process of a young person’s developing individuality is a pervasive concern in contemporary American society, as is the formation of gender roles. The author shows that the narrator has the same basic psychological needs as young American women, even though Burmese culture dictates different practices and standards regarding communication, social interaction, and family ties. Law-Yone also reveals through her depiction of the patients in the mental hospital that psychological disorders are not restricted to any one social or ethnic group but tend to be rooted in personal history and family relationships.


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

America. CXLIX, August 27, 1983, p. 96.

Aung San Suu Kyi. Freedom from Fear: And Other Writings. New York: Penguin, 1991. A collection of writings by the winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. Aung San charts her involvement with the Burmese National League for Democracy and the tumultuous political events of the late 1980’s in Burma. Provides a helpful context for Law-Yone’s fiction.

Donnison, F. S.V. Burma. New York: Praeger, 1970. This broad history of Burma and its people contains a chapter entitled “Military Dictatorship” which describes the military coup staged by General Ne Win in...

(The entire section is 633 words.)