The Ginger Tree

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

This novel narrates the tale of a young, sheltered, very proper Scottish girl who has been reared by a rigid, self-righteous, reticent widow in South Edinburgh. The girl is sensitive, compassionate, and by nature drawn to people. She finds the restrictions and repressions imposed upon her life intolerable when she moves to Peking and marries a very proper and sexually repressed man. The confinement of the life of the embassy personnel in the period following the Boxer Rebellion, plus the discomforts of the change of lifestyle, and the strangeness of the foreign land and customs, all combine to make her feel lonely and depressed. The lack of communication with her husband and her ultimate realization that there is really no love between them increases her sense of isolation, which is intensified by the spectacle of the warmth and affection so openly shared between Marie and Armand when she accompanies them on a holiday to the Western Hills near Peking while her husband is away on duty.

Mary’s impulsive love affair with Count Kurihama which occurs at this point is delicately narrated, and seems, strangely enough, quite a natural thing for this lonely, frustrated, generous young woman to do. The event is decisive in determining Mary’s future. She is henceforth bound to the Orient both by her affection for her lover and by her blood ties to their son, Tomo. At first she feels totally alien in Japan, where she has no friends, no relatives, no knowledge of the language, and no control over her own destiny. Later, when she takes charge of her own life and moves to make a career, a home, and a set of friends for herself, she adapts herself increasingly to Japanese ways and adopts the attitude that Japan is now her home, despite her British citizenship.

In the final section of the book, Mary sees herself as akin to the ginger tree, the alien plant which has taken root and flourished in the Japanese garden, but which the gardener dislikes, calling it a foreign thing which can never be a suitable plant for an authentic Japanese garden. She acknowledges that she will never be accepted truly by the Japanese, despite her love of Japanese culture and her attempts to conform and to preserve their traditional culture and heritage against the inroads of Western concrete, electricity, and industry. She regards her deportation from Japan as exile from her home, rather than as a return to her home. The poignant final scene is deeply moving in its warmth, tenderness, and utter finality.

The author has told the entire tale as a series of journal entries and letters from Mary to her mother and to her friend Marie. This method of narration is difficult to handle, but the author has done so very capably. The sense of immediacy and intimacy is heightened by the device of the journal-letter format. The limited point of view of the girl, her speculations, errors of judgment, and hopes and fears, all function as elements in the shaping of the point of view and in the emotional tone of the narration.

Not that Mary, the journal and letter writer, ever goes into detail in describing her own emotions or even her general emotional state very often. Her Scottish upbringing and proper Victorian reticence combine to make it impossible for her to communicate such intimate details as her private emotions and still remain true to her character. Happily, the author has conveyed such authenticity of Mary’s character, that he can leave the reader to guess, or to infer, those things which Mary cannot bring herself to write. Mary’s reticence is not dissemblance, though. She is honest in her thoughts, in her actions, and in her relations to others. She admires this quality in others too, although she often suspects others are not entirely honest with her. This suspicion occasionally causes her to misjudge others and to make mistakes, which she stolidly records without excuse or apology, accepting her errors and limitations of judgment just as she has accepted her “errors” in behavior.

Mary is the soul of humility, acknowledging her passiveness, her sinfulness, her helplessness, and her lack of insight into others as well as herself. But this humble, realistic appraisal of herself is leavened by a defiant, cool assertion that whatever she is, she will survive and make the best of what comes.

And indeed much does happen to Mary Mackenzie. She is embroiled in the political and social upheavals of early twentieth century Asia in a very personal and inextricable way. The Boxer Rebellion, the rule of the Empress Dowager Tsz’e Hsi, the Japanese-Russian battles, the Emperor Meiji’s death, World Wars I and II, various major earthquakes, fires, tsunamis, and even the depression of the 1930’s are all important elements affecting the life of this remarkable woman. She is at times passive, yielding, and buffeted by dynamic forces around...

(The entire section is 1991 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Booklist. LXXIV, November 1, 1977, p. 464.

Kirkus Reviews. XLV, August 15, 1977, p. 880.

Library Journal. CII, August, 1977, p. 1681.

New Yorker. LIII, November 7, 1977, p. 222.

Observer. August 14, 1977, p. 23.