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The Distant Land of My Father

The Distant Land of My Father

4.4 96
by Bo Caldwell

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Anna, the narrator of this riveting novel, lives in a storybook world: exotic pre-World War II Shanghai, with handsome young parents, wealth, and comfort. Her father, the son of missionaries, leads a charmed and secretive life, though his greatest joy is sharing his beloved city with his only daughter. Yet when Anna and her mother flee Japanese-occupied


Anna, the narrator of this riveting novel, lives in a storybook world: exotic pre-World War II Shanghai, with handsome young parents, wealth, and comfort. Her father, the son of missionaries, leads a charmed and secretive life, though his greatest joy is sharing his beloved city with his only daughter. Yet when Anna and her mother flee Japanese-occupied Shanghai to return to California, he stays behind, believing his connections and a little bit of luck will keep him safe.

Through Anna's memories and her father's journals we learn of his fall from charismatic millionaire to tortured prisoner, in a story of betrayal and reconciliation that spans two continents. The Distant Land of My Father, a breathtaking and richly lyrical debut, unfolds to reveal an enduring family love through tragic circumstances.

National Bestseller

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"A marvelous story, straightforward without being prosaic, full of momentum yet complex and unpredictable."—Los Angeles Times

"For everyone who has ever felt himself in exile from any beloved place, or a time that can never return."—Carolyn See, The Washington Post Book World

"Remarkable . . . A moving tale of love and the possibility of forgiveness."—Library Journal

Los Angeles Times
This is a marvelous story . . . full of momentum yet complex and unpredictable.
Publishers Weekly
Caldwell's memoirlike first novel begins in 1930s Shanghai, a city where enterprising foreign entrepreneurs can quickly become millionaires and just as quickly lose everything as victims of the volatile political climate. Six-year-old narrator Anna Schoene tells the tale of her insurance salesman/smuggler father, Joseph, the son of American missionaries, whose life-long obsession with the city's opportunities gains him great riches, though it ultimately costs him his family and almost his life. Anna worships her father. Her life in Shanghai has been one of privilege, thanks to his shady business dealings. But after a harrowing kidnapping incident, and frightened by the Japanese invasion of China, her mother, Genevieve, flees home to South Pasadena, Calif., taking Anna with her. Joseph is convinced that his connections will keep him safe and refuses to leave. Imprisoned and tortured by the Japanese and subsequently the Chinese Communists, he survives, although he loses everything and is finally deported back to America in 1954. Over the years Anna has distanced herself emotionally from her father, realizing he needed money and power more than he needed his family. But when the physically broken and spiritually reborn Joseph returns to California, he reconciles with the grown Anna and her family. The memoir-style structure lends the characters a certain flatness, but Caldwell's even tone gives the tale a panoramic elegance. Though lacking in narrative vitality, the novel is interesting from a historical perspective and vivid with details of prewar Shanghai and Los Angeles. (Oct.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This remarkable first novel by a Washington Post writer tells the story of young Anna, whose troubled relationship with her maddening, enigmatic father, Joseph Schoene, is set against exotic wartime Shanghai. China-born missionary kid Joe speaks fluent Mandarin and becomes a tremendously successful if somewhat shady import-exporter. With his beautiful wife, Eve, and their beloved daughter, the family lives a privileged existence, but when the Japanese invade, their life quickly unravels. Joe sends his family to California, but he himself is arrested and jailed. After being briefly reunited with them, he returns to China to remake his fortune only to be interned by the Communists. He survives four grueling years in a horrendous prison -- he's nothing if not a survivor -- while unlucky Eve succumbs to unhappiness and leukemia. Though her grandmother warns Anna about letting Joe back into her life, Anna is conflicted. She has spent less than half her life with her father, and he wounded her badly, but she once loved him very much. Will she betray her gentle mother's memory by allowing him back into her life? This is a moving tale of love and the possibility of forgiveness, and Caldwell draws the reader in through powerfully drawn emotion and subtle characterization. Recommended for all libraries. Jo Manning, Barry Univ., Miami Shores, FL Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Washington Post

Don't believe everything book reviewers tell you! I just picked up another publication and read a lukewarm, unimpressed review of "The Distant Land of My Father," and was reminded, once again, that "literature" doesn't occur on the page but in the magic connections between page and the human brain. I was crazy about this book, couldn't put it down, was occasionally moved to tears; and who can say which review is "wrong" or "right"? (Actually, I prefer my interpretation, but it may be a function of the times as well; with the country now at some form of war, this novel comes even more alive.)

The Distant Land of My Father is about exile, love both failed and redeemed, the limits of human endurance, the strength of family and above all, irrational love of place, the tyranny that one particular section of the planet can exert over human beings, whether they like it or not.

--Carolyn See

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Harvest Book Series
Edition description:
First Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.99(d)
1010L (what's this?)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


SHANGHAI, JUNE 1937, the air hot and muggy. My father stood on the verandah of our home, a villa on Hungjao Road in the western suburbs outside of the International Settlement. His back was to me as he looked out at the expanse of lawn that to me, at six, seemed vast as an ocean. He faced east, toward the Bund and the Whangpoo River, and I thought I smelled the river's familiar sharpness, a grimy mix of factory smoke and seaweed and fish, though the Whangpoo was some ten miles away.

    It was dusk, a word that I understood as "dust," which made sense to me, one of those few words whose meaning matched its sound. That was how the world seemed at that hour: slightly dusty, softened and dimly covered in some eerie talc, the sharp edges chalk-picture blurry. My father had played polo that afternoon and still wore his riding clothes, off-white jodhpurs and a jersey shirt, the color so creamy it appeared liquid, and black leather boots that I wanted to touch to see if they were real. They seemed somehow conjured up. He, too, seemed conjured up, in that dim light. He leaned on the verandah wall, his drink next to him, a tumbler that held Four Roses, golden, the color of caramel, and it was as though the Scotch softened everything: the night, the stone wall, the leaves of the plane trees just beyond, the sharp edges of the crystal tumbler, my father himself.

    My father stood very still, gazing out at a city that he loved. To me, it was simply home, no more, no less. But as I stood in the doorway, watching him, waiting for him to feel my presence, I felt certain inside that I was in exactly the right place: this house, this doorway, this night, this father. I wore a white cotton nightgown that had been sewn by hand. I was clean, just out of the bath, my long brown hair a cool wet trail down my back. Chu Shih, our cook, had given me long-life noodles and jasmine tea for dinner, then helped me get ready for bed so that I could say good night to my parents before they went out.

    I heard my mother's voice then, and I turned from the doorway before my father saw me. She was descending the long curved staircase, and she wore a wine-colored silk dress with a border of pearls sewn into the neckline. My mother's name was Genevieve, and it suited her: she was elegant and graceful, and was always known only by her full name, with one exception: to my father she was Eve, and when he said her name, he did so intimately. Our last name, Schoene—pronounced "show-en"—meant beautiful or handsome in German, and I thought it suited both of my parents. When I was afraid, I would repeat their names to myself, and the sound of those names lulled me and made me feel safe: Joseph and Genevieve Schoene.

    My mother smiled at me, and I suddenly wanted her not to go out. I wanted her close, though there was no reason to be anxious. This was just an ordinary night. My parents went out most evenings. I learned only later, when my mother and I had moved to the United States, the startling fact that parents usually stayed at home with their children in the evenings.

    My mother did not share my father's passion for Shanghai, but rather held the city at arm's length. It was an entity she did not want to know better, and she was every bit as diffident toward it as my father was affectionate. He knew every part of the city, while my mother knew only what she had to. She seemed to regard it as a temporary post, not a home, and she used what she called her landmark system. In each neighborhood, she chose a starting point, and she always started from that place, regardless of where she had to end up. In the French Concession it was the Cercle Sportif Français, a nightclub she liked on Route Cardinal Mercier. In the International Settlement it was the Sun Sun Department Store at the corner of Tibet and Nanking Road. On the Bund it was the brass lions in front of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank. Her plan seemed to work; my mother was never lost. I understood her system, for I had a landmark of my own, a place I always started from to get wherever I was going, a reference point for everything I did. It was my father.

    My father was, from my careful observations of him, a person who solved problems. When I was five, I accidentally swallowed a Reese's cinnamon drop whole, and I began to choke. My father stood only a few feet away; we were at the home of his friend Will Marsh, and he was just saying good night. He glanced at me, looked back at his friend, looked at me again, and said, "Excuse me." Then he simply picked me up by my ankles, held me upside down, and laughed when the cinnamon drop popped out of my mouth. For a long time, his ability to fix whatever was wrong was a given of my childhood.

    There were other givens as well. My mother's elegance, her patient manner, her propriety and composure. She taught me never to say I was full after a meal, but only that I had "had a sufficiency." Her beauty was a given. I knew even as a young child that she was beautiful, not the way children think their mothers are—I knew she was, from the way men stared when she entered the room, the way other women regarded her, the intensity with which my father watched her. For a long time, her beautiful long hair was a given, always worn in a chignon at the nape of her neck. It seemed somehow private, the most intimate part of her, as though it held secrets she would never divulge. Her intense yet somehow odd devotion to my father was also a given. She was like his moon: she circled only him, yet always at a distance.

    On that summer evening, when my mother reached the bottom of the stairs, she glanced around her as though getting her bearings. It was a familiar gesture; she was looking for my father, and it was what she always did first when she entered a room or a house or a garden. Now she glanced about and, not seeing him, looked at me.

    "He's outside," I said simply

    She nodded, then leaned toward me, smoothing the wet strands of my bangs off my forehead. "You're warm, Anna."

    "Can I see your hair?" I asked.

    She stooped so that she was closer to my height. She did this gracefully, a small miracle in her long, fitted dress. She smelled like Chanel No. 5, and just under it, a trace of lilac from her bath. She turned so that I could see her back, and her hair was the way it always was, bound at the nape of her neck. I leaned close to see what she was using to hold it there. On the carved mahogany dresser in her room was a Venetian leather jewelry box that held in its crimson velvet lining more than a dozen fasteners and combs made of ivory, tortoiseshell, silver, jade. Tonight she wore my favorites: two intricately carved ivory needles that intersected and held her hair perfectly in place.

    We heard my father's footsteps then. My mother looked up, about to stand, and I asked the question that was always in my mind but which I had never voiced. "Do you love him more, or me?"

    She did not hesitate. "I love you both," she said simply. And then she rose, smoothed her skirt, and went outside to join him.

    They left a short time later, after my father had showered and shaved and dressed in a dinner coat. He whistled "Moonglow" as he came downstairs, and I knew he was in good spirits. My mother stood at the large window in the kitchen, sipping a glass of sherry, waiting for him. He came into the room and smiled at her. And then he saw me, sitting at the table, drawing.

    "You," he said, and he headed toward me and seemed as large as the huge brass lions that guarded the entrance of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank. "And now for you." And in two strides he reached me and lifted me from my chair and held me so high that I felt the closeness of the ceiling just above my head. I 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. His hands were warm and firm and huge around my rib cage, and I wanted him to never put me down.

    But he did, of course, and my sides stayed warm from his grip as he roughly kissed my cheek and held the door for my mother and headed into the still night, whistling again. I heard the sound of car doors as my parents slid into the backseat of the Packard, which waited for them outside, then the crunch of gravel as Mei Wah, my father's Sikh chauffeur, walked to the front of the car, and then the sound of his door. And then I heard the even hum of the Packard's engine, a sound I came to dread, as it eased toward the street.

    I went out on the verandah. My father's glass was still on the wall, empty except for its strong scent of Scotch. I watched the car slowly make its way toward the street, its red taillights bright. When it reached the end of the driveway and left the gravel to meet the road, it blew out a small cloud of dirt, like a kiss, and I took a deep breath and felt the fine dust of my father's presence, familiar, another given, filling the cracks and covering the surface of my life.

Excerpted from the distant land of my father by bo caldwell. Copyright © 2001 by Bo Caldwell. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Bo Caldwell has published short stories in numerous literary magazines. Her nonfiction writing includes a long-running series of personal essays in the Washington Post Magazine. She is a former Stegner Fellow in creative writing at Stanford University, and now lives in Northern California with her husband, novelist Ron Hansen, and her two children.

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The Distant Land of My Father (Harvest Book Series) 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 96 reviews.
kiriandketa More than 1 year ago
This is an absolutely wonderful first novel by Bo Caldwell. I'm always excited to discover a new author, but even more thrilled to find one who writes so well. I savored every word. She makes Shanghai come alive with sights and sounds, and the characters are so well developed. The ending was sad but given all of the events in the story, it had to be.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was assigned this book as a summer reading book for school, so I thought it was just going to be another boring & dull book. Luckily, I was wrong. This book was actually very interesting and I found myself not wanting to put it down. I really enjoyed reading it and you felt like you were connected with the characters like you actually knew them. Bo Caldwell did a great job writing this novel and I'm glad I was assigned this book for the summer. I've already reccommended this book to people I know! Definitely a great read!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Really great book. True story told by the daughter who immigrated to the US with her mother but not her father. Good history info about 2 wars that happened in ShangHai.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Engrossing, lush and exotic!! Hard to believe that this is not a memoir. It is written in such a personal narrative voice. The descriptions of Shanghai are so vivid I can feel the sultry humid air and the freezing cold. The interpersonal relationships are complex and well defined. Just a marvelous book, best book I've read since Suite Francaise!! This would make a great movie!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
No matter what happens, a loving family will stay together and survive one way or another, especially when the going is really tough.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a love story, the love between a father and daughter, a man and a woman and a man and a city. Bo Caldwell shows the delicate layering of each relationship and how they interact over a period of some 25 years. But that is too dry a description for a book that will leave you searching for a hankie. Anna Schoene's reaction to her father's refusal to put his wife and child before his love for the city of Shanghai is told so beautifully and so truthfully that the book reads far more like autobiography than fiction. The emotions are that well presented. It's the kind of book that will resonate for days after you've turned the last page.
-----Sharon More than 1 year ago
Have lots of tissue ready for the tears.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was an excellent book. I couldn't put it down and as soon as I finished it, I passed it to a friend!
NJ-Nina More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book. I am a nonstop reader and love a good nonfiction interspersed with my fiction. This book gives insight into what Japan did during World Word II in China and to how foreigners were treated. This well written book is a great read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I loved this book,visiting Shanghai in the past,the love for each other of the characters.... and to be able to forgive. I hope Ms Calwell gives us a new book soon..to me she is part of the group of Buck,Elegant,Lin Yutang and others...
Guest More than 1 year ago
A well developed, touching story of a young girl whose millionaire father loses his family and fortune through lack of vision and a series of wrong judgments. The author shows clearly how the adoration of a child for her father gradually turns into disappointment as his decisions degrade her family life. The daughter eventually overcomes her resentment against her father through reading his diary and unterstanding his motives.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book will take you to places of exotic beauty and horrifying realities of being in an occupied foreign city. It has a realistic serving of human emotions and survival. The author weaves the story of a most dynamic man and the wife and daughter who love him. I loved these strong women.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Felt very invested in main charater. Interesting to read about china before,during and after ww2.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ann_Louise More than 1 year ago
This is a sad book - but with elements of family love and overcoming wrongs without forgetting the past. It will remind you of your own family relationships. Can't recommend it highly enough.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Really enjoyed this book. Very entertaining and you really see the characters personalities. Felt like the story was told so well you know the main characters in and out. I cried a little and laughed and wished I could watch it like a movie. Worth reading!
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