Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 575

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...

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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, however, Fritz describes how she lamented being on the “wrong” side of the globe, the side half a world away from her grandmother in the United States. She appreciated the drama of the Yangtse River and the life that teemed on it, but she would rather be watching yellow chicks hatch on the family farm in Pennsylvania. So intense was her identification as an American that she refused to sing “God Save the King” at the British school that she attended. Her father pointed out that the tune is identical to the tune for “America” and suggested that she carry the tune but sing her own words. This solution was both typical of his inventive solutions to problems and indicative of his hearty approach to life. Yet her father could also be tender, as when he comforted Fritz after the death of her baby sister, Miriam, whose body remained behind in China when the family sailed for the United States.

That sailing was filled with excitement. Fritz and her mother hastily caught a boat for Shanghai because Hankow had become unsafe for foreigners. Joined there by her father, they sailed for the United States on the President Taft. Also aboard was Fritz’s best friend, Andrea Hull, who was sailing with her mother and brothers. Andrea’s parents were divorcing and her father was remaining in China. Andrea’s loss is in subtle counterpoint to Jean’s sense of losing China, coupled with her anticipation of meeting the American relatives she has loved from afar for so long. Her grandmother, grandfather, and Aunt Margaret were as wonderful as Jean thought they would be, and her grandmother’s laughter helped Fritz adjust to a teacher who was as cranky as the one she had left in China. Donald Burch, the attractive classmate with whom Fritz makes friends, completed her transformation into a child who could feel like a real American and also appreciate her Chinese roots.

Setting

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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 warlords. By 1927 troops reached Hankow, where Jean lived with her parents. But the delicate union between the Kuomintang and the Communists fell apart, and bloody civil war erupted again. Foreign residents were caught in the middle, and many, like Jean's family, left China. The narrative closes with Jean adapting to life on her grandmother's farm in Washington, Pennsylvania.

Literary Qualities

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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.

Social Sensitivity

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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.

For Further Reference

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 106

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 Post Book World (November 7, 1982): 13- 14. A laudatory review of Homesick by another writer born in China.

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