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.
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.
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
Shanghai in the 1930s was an exotic, magical place for a girl to grow up. Anna, the narrator of Bo Caldwell's lush and epic first novel, "The Distant Land of My Father" (Chronicle Books, 373 pp., $23.95), has a kind of royalty for parents.
Her father, Joseph, the son of missionaries, has been leading a charmed and privileged life, albeit with a secret existence as a smuggler. Her mother, Genevieve, a Californian by birth, has a radiant elegance. Young Anna knew "even as a child that she was beautiful, not the way children think their mothers areI knew she was fromt he way men stared when she entered the room, the way other women regarded her, the intensity with which my father watched her."
The family's fairy-tale existence begins to fall apart with the Japanese occupation of China. Anna and her mother flee to California, but Joseph chooses power and fortune over family and remains behind. Over the years, the vicissitudes of war and politics leave their mark. Joseph suffers under the hands of the Japanese and Chinese Communists. His wife and daughter cope with feelings of betrayal and loss. As 14-year-old Anna reels from a short visit from her father, she writes:
I felt different every day, as though I were controlled by some force outside myself. One morning I woke up happy and couldn't wait to get to school. Three hours later, I'd be despondent and discouraged, almost in tears over a bad grade on a quiz or my friends not waiting for me for lunch.
Caldwell, who has published short shories in numerous literary magazines and lives in Northern California with her children and husband, novelist Ron Hansen, writes vividly and with great historical perspecitve. Against a background of Pearl Harbor and Mao Zedong, she grapples with the more personal issues of redemption, love and the healing power of forgiveness. -San Jose Mercury News
This is a marvelous story, straightforward without being prosaic, full of momentum yet complex and unpredictable. Bo Caldwell's novelized memoir of her father and of their lives in Shanghai in the 1930s and '40s, portrays an idyllic childhood, vividly remembered, a time of verandahs and parties and white linen suits, that is abruptly shattered when the Japanese invade Shanghai. There are bloody bodies and kidnappings and burning buildings, but more painful is the steady erosion of the child's faith in her father. "The Distant Land of My Father" is a study of the glittering visions that wear us down; to ashes or diamonds.-Los Angeles Times Book Review
This is a marvelous story...full of momentum, yet complex and unpredictable.
Los Angeles Times