The Distant Land of My Father, by Bo Caldwell
Reviewed by Judy Garrison
It’s clearly present on the front cover, right under the title: “a novel”, but everything about this book feels like a personal memoir. We follow the child narrator from the age of 7 to adulthood as she tells her story and her father’s stories with great psychological realism. This aura of authenticity is reinforced by the hand drawn map of old Shanghai at the book’s beginning. And by the prologue which describes how the narrator, Anna, came to tell the rounded story of her father, Joseph Schoene, who died in May 1961 of cardiac arrest. She is cleaning out his shabby quarters in a downtown Los Angeles rooming house, and discovers on a high shelf a fruit crate containing an envelope with her name on it. In the envelope is a letter and hand drawn map of his beloved Shanghai; in the box are accounting ledgers that contain her father’s journal entries, and memoirs and guidebooks about the city. The narrator then says, “And I knew what my father was doing: he was, once again, teaching me about Shanghai, something he’d done in my childhood. Only this time he was telling me about himself as well.”
This prologue fittingly launches the themes of desire and loss which drench the atmosphere of the memoir/novel itself, beginning in the opening chapter in the hot and muggy but enchanting Shanghai of June 1937. Anna’s mother, Genevieve, “smelled like Chanel No. 5, and just under it, a trace of lilac from her bath.” Her father seemed to her “as large as the huge brass lions that guarded the entrance of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank.” Then she breathed in his “scent of Old Spice and Four Roses and Philippine cigars, and I was certain that my father was strong enough to hold up the world.”
This debut novel, whose fine prose never calls undue attention to itself, tells its complex and rich story unfalteringly in terms of holding readers in thrall. Caldwell has infused the surprising turns of plot with great specificity of detail, and has us wondering along with the narrator/daughter about the secrets harbored by her father.
So it is easy for a reader to believe that she is reading an actual heartfelt memoir. But this is belied not only by those words “a novel,” but by the jacket photo of. Ms.Caldwell who appears to be in her 40’s. An internet search reveals that Bo Caldwell was born in Oklahoma City in 1955. She has published many essays and short stories and is a former Stegner Fellow in Creative Writing at Stanford University. She says about the book, which was originally published in hardcover by Chronicle Books in October, 2001 and became a national bestseller, “The Distant Land of My Father takes places in Shanghai and Los Angeles from 1937 to 1961, and is based on the life of an uncle of mine, my mom’s oldest brother who spent much of his life in Shanghai. My mom’s parents had been missionaries in the interior of China.”.
Caldwell brings fiery life to the Shanghai she has meticulously researched so that we feel we are there on “the Bund” and in the French Concession when the refugees start pouring into the city. We get to know it as a hotbed of international commerce with opportunities for risk-taking entrepreneurs like Joseph, during the Japanese invasion and occupation, and when transformed into a Chinese Communist city under Mao. And then she convincingly lands us in Pasadena and Los Angeles of the 1950’s. (When Anna is told by a teacher that L.A. and Shanghai are on the same parallel, she thinks, “it was not possible.”)
What really connected me as a reader were the feelings of an adoring little girl for her larger than life father as he takes her under his wing. She calls him her “landmark”. The texture of their shared life wasn’t my own but her evocation of detail and feeling took me back to that early relationship of mine. And though few of us were abandoned or had fathers who were either millionaires or brutally tortured prisoners, we-especially daughters-can identify with the only child whose idealized father acts inexplicably and betrays our trust.
There are a few bogeymen in the book, but the main characters buttress Anna’s life of shifting sands and betrayals: the fully drawn father, the devoted mother, the chauffeur Mei Wah and the nurturing cook Chu Shih. Her loving California grandmother — who tries to protect Anna emotionally when she says, “Your father is a risky person to love” — is portrayed as the quintessence of wisdom and stability. The rich particulars of time and place and the culmination of the story in reconciliation and forgiveness left this reader bathed in satisfying tears of catharsis.~