The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, 1989
The magic trick:
Establishing a high emotional pitch with the mother’s backstory
I love the way Tan weaves the past and the present through this story, including both the narrator’s memories and those of the narrator’s mother. It works perfectly to present the difficulties – both generational and cultural – the narrator finds as she tries to identify with her mother.
The centerpiece is the narrator’s mother’s story about escaping war-torn China. It is a harrowing tale – equal parts inspiring and horrific. No wonder, the reader can’t help but think, this woman struggles to connect with her mother. Who could truly understand an experience like that?
The backstory honors the real-life Chinese refuge experience, providing important information and connections to a Western audience. Meanwhile, and more to the literary point, it establishes the emotional backdrop on which the narrator’s personal journey through the remainder of “The Joy Luck Club” is painted. And that’s quite a trick on Tan’s part.
“Along the way, I saw others had done the same, gradually given up hope. It was like a pathway inlaid with treasures that grew in value along the way. Bolts of fine fabric and books. Paintings of ancestors and carpenter tools. Until one could see cages of ducklings now quiet with thirst and, later still, silver urns lying in the road, where people had been too tired to carry them for any kind of future hope. By the time I arrived in Chungking I had lost everything except for three fancy dresses which I wore one on top of the other.”
“What do you mean by ‘everything’?” I gasped at the end. I was stunned to realize the story had been true all along. “What happened to the babies?”