Tuesday, July 12, 2011

3 Books on Russia-China

I have been reading up a storm lately- I read 2 books by Kate Furnivall. The Russian Concubine and The Jewel of St. Petersburg. These aren't my typical books, but I was drawn to them when I saw them at Barnes & Noble. So I put them on hold at the library, and voila! The first book is actually The Jewel of St. Petersburg. but I read The Russian Concubine first. It follows Valentina, the mother, and her daughter Lydia in China. They live in The District where the Russians or white people live. They are very poor, and live on what Lydia steals, or Valentina makes at her piano concerts. Her father is gone, believed to be dead, and they carve out a life together. When the Reds took over Russia, and killed the aristocracy, her mother and father fled with her. He was taken, but her mother was saved along with her. She believes her father was killed by the Bolsheviks. It is Junchow, China and it is 1928.

Valentina drinks and smokes a lot, perhaps to forget the past. Lydia is often taking care of her mother and cleaning up after her. She meets a boy on the streets when getting lost after school, he saves her life from some Chinese bandits and thieves. His name is Chang an Lo. He starts to follow her and watch her, feeling that he needs to protect her always. She is different from anyone he has ever seen, with bright blond hair. The story gets quite complicated fast, as Lydia becomes more involved with Chang and angers the Snake Gang. She is almost caught stealing a few times, and is always caring for her mother. China is being ruled by England, and many are out there starving, thieving and murdering on a regular basis. It is a beautiful place, but so corrupt and full of despair. As Lydia grows to learn more about China, and Chang, she becomes involved in the Snake gang. They capture Chang and almost kill him, and she finds him on the docks in a hovel, almost dead.

Through the help of one of her mother's old friends Liev Popkov, they bring him back. He has been tortured and left for dead. During this time as well, her mother has married an English journalist and moved into a home. While they are away on honeymoon, Lydia works to care for Ching. She finds out he is a Communist, and this is the reason the Snake triad gang is coming after him. They also find out she is with him, and comes and kidnaps her. Her parents come home, and are frantic to find her. Chang an Lo searches everywhere he knows to find her, and eventually has to face the leader of them all to free her. She is tortured and almost drowned in a cage a few times, but is set free when Liev, Chang and her teacher come to rescue her.

Her stepfather and mother aren't happy about their relationship, but seem okay with it for a time. Chang decides he needs to leave China, because the gang will always be looking for him. The day he is leaving, Lydia is watching her mother with her professor driving down the neighborhood, and it is suddenly blown up. Her mother was dead. I was saddened by the book, and the hopelessness of China. I have heard it is a beautiful country, but it was such a hard time for people. The relationship between mother and daughter was also quite complicated, and you find out later that her father is still alive, but a slave. Lydia travels to find him, with her half brother Alexei. There the story ends. There is obviously some torture scenes and some sexual. Skip over them if you can.

The Jewel of St. Pertersburg is what I read next, and it was interesting to finally find out what Valentina, the mother, was like. In the other book, she seemed remote, distant and lazy. It follows her and her family in Russia, they are part of the aristocracy and quite wealthy. Her father serves the Tsar Nicholas II. In the beginning of the book, it follows Valentina as she escapes the house early one morning to ride her horse. She comes upon some dangerous men accidentally, and barely escapes with her life. Upon coming home, she finds their summer home ablaze. Her sister Kayla has been burned badly, and barely lives. During this sad period of time, while she tries to help care for her sister, her family goes back home to St. Petersburg. She tries to take her sister out with her as much as possible, but it is hard with her in a wheelchair. Her sister attempts to take her own life one night, but is saved by her sister.

Valentina is strong willed, and decides she wishes to drop out of school, she is 17, to focus on becoming a nurse. Her father says no, that she needs to marry a wealthy man. While he looks to finding her a man, Valentina goes to Court to play for the tsar and the Countess Serova. While there, she sees a man with brilliant red hair and is fascinated. She sees him another time, and is secretly in love with him. While at a ball, she is introduced to him. His name is Jen Friis, and they instantly connect. He tries to court her, but is thwarted by her father, who wants her to marry Captain Cherov, in the tsar's army. She extracts a promise from her father, that if he will let her become a nurse, she will court Captain Cherov. During this time, she continues to see Jen in secret. They fall in love and meet often. He is an engineer for the tsar, and works in the tunnels and canals.

While visiting him in his work one day, they are almost killed by a collapse and water filling up the tunnels. The Bolsheviks had tried to bomb the tsar's home, but instead hit the tunnel. Several attempts had been made at killing different aristocratic members. Russia was bound for rebellion, and soon Valentina and Jen are caught up in it. She finds out that her driver is one of them, and finds some bombs he is hiding. When he finds out, he escapes. His name is Arkin, and she searches for him to oust him to the Okrhana police. In the meantime, life goes on and she falls in love with Jen. She becomes pregnant, and finally her parents agree to let them marry. The rebellion is still in full swing, and Valentina works by day as a nurse, and by night she serves the poor and searches for Arkin.

The rebellion is coming about, because the working class people are angry at their work conditions, poor pay, and the tsarist rule. The aristocracy lives in supreme comfort and wealthy, while they slave away. Valentina does all she can to help those around her, but is the target now of Arkin. He captures her and her sister, and keeps them for a few days while blackmailing their father. He is bankrupt and can't afford their ransom. Finally they escape, and go home. Things die down enough, that they are married and move into their own home. Jen continues to work on his tunnels, while Valentina plays her piano and takes care of their daughter Lydia. Soon the uprising begins again, and many lives are claimed. Her father and mother are tried for treason, and Jen is captured and locked up for several months. She finally gets his release with the help of an old friend, Liev Popkov, and convinces Arkin, who is back again, to help her.

They escape through the tunnels, and onto a train outside the city. They are headed to China, when they are stopped by some Bolshevik soldiers. They take her husband away, but let her live along with her daughter, because she throws up some diamonds and gives them as payment. I was again saddened by such a sad time, even though love abounded, it didn't last long. I can understand why rebellions like that start, but the violence is so said and upsetting. I don't know if I recommend these books, unless you are into that period of time.

The Concubine's Daughter is written by Pai Kit Fai, set in the twentieth century in China where a woman's destiny is not her own. There is a farm landowner who has 3 wives, and his third wife gives birth to a daughter, Lia Xia (meaning beautiful one). When the husband leaves to bury the child since it is a girl, she jumps from the window and is killed by some pikes. The child is not quite dead when the husband notices a white fox, and in the Chinese traditions, it is believed if you see one, that the body of the baby will come back to haunt you if killed. He lets her live, and orders his 2 wives to take care of her. They resent her and treat her harshly. He decides to give her lotus feet, because she will be a great prize. Girls are sold at age 8, and get a higher price if they have tiny feet or soft butterfly hands. While they try to bind up her feet, she bites and fights them.

She already has a mind of her own, a strong one. Eventually she runs away a few times, and talks her father out of binding her feet. He agrees because he fears her wrath, or that of her undead mother's. For he saw another white fox, and decides to treat her well. She is sold at the age of 8, to a local silk farm. She meets the nice girls there, and works hard. As time passes, she is noticed, and is called to be a silk weaver. Then she is called to be the owner's concubine. She resists his charms and slaps him and tries to escape. They find her, and give her one more option- to accept the ivory hair comb. This is a life of no men, children, and just weaving for the rest of one's life. Lia Xia does not see it as a compliment, but tries to escape again. She is tied up, beaten, left to starve, and then is prepared to be drowned. It was frequent custom to kill those that have not behaved or obeyed.

Right when she was being drowned, an English captain sees her and dives in to save her. He takes her home with him, and has her taken care of. When she is able to walk again, she starts to work for him. As they get to know one another, they fall in love and marry. He treats her very well, and teachers her about the sea. He is very wealthy and respected. An old family feud comes back, one night while she is big pregnant, and she is abused and then burned. Still alive, barely, she gives birth prematurely to her daughter. She bids her servant Fish take care of her, and take her away, and then throws herself into the sea. Her husband finds her, and mourns the loss of her. He tries to find who did this, but they have disappeared. He searches for his daughter, to no avail.

Fish raises Su Sing (meaning Little Star) away from China. She grows up healthy and strong, and can read and write well. That is a legacy her mother had started, to be a scholar. Su Sing learns as much as she can, and prepares herself to return to China to her father at the age of 12. She is thwarted by the efforts of an angry boy, who was tutored before her. He is jealous of her and how they care for her. He kills her godmother Fish, and her tutor. He takes her to China, but sells her to a whorehouse. She escapes with her wits and charm, virginity intact, and moves to another entertaining house where she can make more money, without doing anything much. She meets a friend there, and together they run away before they are sold. Eventually she meets a man in the army, and he decides to help her find her father. He also helps them find good housing where it is safe.

Su Sing pays off her previous owners, so they won't come after her ever again. While they are living in the country, a big flood comes, and her friend is killed. They find some contacts that know where her father was, and she goes to meet with them. They believe him to be dead, and she finds him by chance. Mistress Bramble, her mother's old tutor, has her father's will and a deed to the old home. She moves in, while continuing to search for her father. She finds him, and they meet. He is blind and badly scarred from a shipping accident. They are together for a few days, before he dies. Su Sing moves back home, and approaches her father's old enemies, the ones who had killed her mother. She pays them and blackmails them into keeping away from her. There is much more to the story, but I'm afraid I've tired out my typing hands. This ending is happy, she marries her captain and they live happily ever after.

Reading all of these books made me sad, and grateful for the country I live in. I am grateful for the freedoms we have, and the comforts of life. It made me appreciative of what others have gone through, and to abhor war even more. If you are interested, these books were entertaining but as you can read, very disturbing at times and sad. These stories are told to show that there were powerful women who shaped their own destinies, despite immense odds and obstacles.

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