Form and Content

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Jean Fritz’s Homesick: My Own Story follows the author’s experiences as the ten-year-old Jean Guttery, from her childhood in Hankow, China, to her arrival two years later in the place that her parents always referred to as “Washington, P.A.” Although largely episodic, each of the book’s seven chapters explores an aspect of Fritz’s growing sense of personal identity as she reviews her role within the family and her allegiances as an American abroad. As a first-person narrative, the story remains faithful to Fritz’s point of view as a young girl but gains expansiveness from the lively interest that she takes in the people, places, and events she observes or hears discussed. The most moving story is told by her nurse, Lin Nai-Nai, who had traveled to Wuchang to bring food to her family in the war-torn city. The net result of the author’s empathetic narration is not only a story of one girl’s life abroad with missionary parents but also a vivid set of character sketches and dramatic moments that bring China itself to life.

Fritz also provides a brief “Background of Chinese History, 19131927” at the conclusion of her story, as well as photographs of herself and her family and friends. All but one of the photographs were taken in China, and their Chinese settings (especially a photograph of bombed buildings in Wuchang) reinforce the sense of the author’s having been a witness to history.

At the beginning of the book,...

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Setting

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

In the preface to Homesick, Fritz remarks that "although this book takes place within two years—from October 1925 to September 1927—the events are drawn from the entire period of my childhood ... they are all, except in minor details, basically true." Family photographs accompany the text and make the story more personal and real. Since some knowledge of the historical period is helpful for an understanding of the book, Fritz also provides a brief section titled "Background of Chinese History, 1913-1927."

In the mid-nineteenth century, the British fought their way into China, opening it up for trade with western Europe. Along with the merchants came the missionaries, whose aim was to convert the "heathen" Chinese to Christianity. The Chinese believed that the missionaries' real goal was to extend the political power of foreign countries.

In 1900 the Chinese Boxer rebels declared war on foreigners, seizing embassies in Peking and Tainjin. British and French troops arrived, the empress and her court fled Peking, and several internal factions fought for control of the government. A constitutional monarchy was created, but bitter quarrels—many of them focusing on the issue of foreign influence in Chinese affairs—continued to rage between rival warlords.

By the 1920s, when Homesick takes place, two major factions—the Kuomintang and the Communists—had joined forces to reunify China and end the rule of the...

(The entire section is 282 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Homesick: My Own Story falls somewhere between autobiography and fiction. Many of the book's details, characters, and places are real, but Fritz compresses her thirteen-year experience in China into a two-year account, weaving the narrative recollections together with fictional threads. The autobiographical story has an episodic rather than a strictly linear plot, perhaps because Fritz based the book in part on journal entries from her childhood in China. In the same way that journal writing involves the exploration of thoughts and feelings rather than the simple recording of daily events, Homesick offers more than a chronological accumulation of incidents in Fritz's life. Rather than focusing on chronology, the story highlights the insights, emotions, and relationships that shape Fritz's personality and values. The title of the book, Homesick, reflects its thematic concern, implying that the primary focus of the story is not what Fritz did for thirteen years in China, but rather what she felt. Her tone throughout the story is light-hearted and often humorous; through lively dialogue and description she creates a fluid, informative account of her childhood experience.

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Social Sensitivity

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Fritz handles discussions of orphans and adoption sensitively but openly. David wants to know who his real parents are, "whether his father is a crook or what ... whether he was dead or alive." Jean sympathizes with this need but also considers David's quest "crazy." The Hulls appear to ignore the issue entirely. Readers might ask why the Hulls are insensitive to David's needs and why some adults think that an adopted child should not learn about his biological parents.

Jean is portrayed as a perceptive but supremely innocent child, far more innocent, it seems, than the average child of today. There are minor references to sex, death, and violence in the book, but the potentially disturbing nature of these scenes is offset by Jean's innocence, which serves as a filter. Fritz does not sensationalize the horrors of war, although she presents a touching description of Lin Nai-Nai's efforts to help her starving family.

Because Jean narrates the book, Fritz is able to treat many culturally and politically sensitive issues—such as the presumed right of American missionaries to impose their well-meaning but paternalistic presence on the Chinese— with the puzzled innocence of a child.

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Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Jean's mother annoys Jean by always reminding her to "be good." What do you think she means by this? Why do you think it annoys Jean so much? Do you think Jean is "good"?

2. Jean is homesick for a place she has never seen. How can this be? What does "home" mean?

3. Even though Jean has never been to America, she has very definite ideas about what America will be like. How well do her ideas hold up to the reality of Washington, Pennsylvania?

4. David Hull is adopted. Jean thinks her parents should adopt Lee, an orphan girl who visits the family at Christmas. How does the idea of adoption complement the theme of finding one's roots? Why are roots so important?

5. Jean's favorite name is "Marjorie." She hates the choice of "Miriam" for her baby sister. Why are names so important in this story? How do names help the author develop her themes?

6. Lin Nai-Nai and Yang Sze-Fu are the Gutterys' Chinese servants. What is their relationship with their foreign employers?

7. When Jean plays hooky from school at the beginning of the book, she meets a little Chinese boy and makes friends. This boy appears in the street, yelling insults, when Jean leaves Hankow at the end of the book. Why do you think Fritz included this episode?

8. Compare the characterizations of young Jean and her best friend Andrea Hull.

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Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Research and report on the historical setting for Homesick.

2. Fritz explains in her preface that Homesick is part fiction and part autobiography. Using what you know about novels and biographies, separate the two ways of writing as they apply to this book.

3. Fritz spends most of the book "homesick" for America, but by the end of the story the reader begins to suspect that she will soon be homesick for China. What aspects of Fritz's narrative make this suspicion grow?

4. Write a paper exploring some of the unique cultural aspects of China that are mentioned in Homesick. Examples might include Lin Nai-Nai's bound feet, the wide-eyed boats on the Yangtze, and Yang Sze-Fu's long fingernails.

5. In 1985 Jean Fritz wrote about her return to China in China Homecoming. How does this sequel continue and develop the themes of Homesick?

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Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

After Fritz arrived in the U.S., she discovered that she was homesick for China: "China was not just part of me; I was part of China.... I had been born here, lived here, and like the Chinese themselves, I had watched the river rise and fall, seen the moon come and go." Fifty-five years after leaving China as a young girl, Fritz returned with her husband. China Homecoming describes this journey and her search for her roots in China. Unlike Homesick, China Homecoming does not combine the methods of fiction and nonfiction. It is a straightforward narrative about China today and Fritz's personal attempt to meld the past with the present.

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For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Ammon, Richard. "Profile: Jean Fritz." Language Arts 60 (March 1983): 365- 369. An overview of Fritz's life and work, concentrating primarily on the series of brief biographies of the founding fathers and Homesick.

Fritz, Jean. "Acceptance Speech: Regina Medal Recipient." Catholic Library World 52 (July/August 1985): 21-25. Background for the writing of Homesick.

Michener, James A. "China Childhood." New York Times Book Review (November 14, 1982): 41, 57. A laudatory review by Fritz's first editor at Macmillan. He notes the book's episodic narrative structure and sensitive use of children's language.

Paterson, Katherine. "An American Childhood in China." Washington...

(The entire section is 106 words.)