Library Director’s Notebook
Before there was texting, email, cell phones, telephones, telegrams, the post office ,inexpensive writing materials, or any degree of universal literacy, keeping in close communication with a distant friend was a difficult task. How much more difficult if the time and the place and the existing culture all conspire to keep you separated from the healing power of lifelong friendship.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, a ravishingly beautiful novel by Lisa See demonstrates with startling psychological insight how the love and devotion of two innocent young girls can grow and mature into an intense, lifelong passion.
As very young girls growing up in nineteenth century China, far removed from any modern beliefs or practices, Lily and Snow Flower pledge their troth as laotongs or “old sames”. With this contract the two girls promise to share their inner lives with each other forever, to be “like a pair of mandarin ducks”, caring about each other, supporting each other, and keeping in constant contact using the ancient language art of nu shu, a special form of written communication created and used by women only. The girls painstakingly learned the phonetically based nu shu and communicated via embroidered messages, letters, and most importantly by writing on a shared beautiful fan that they passed back and forth between each other to mark important moments in their lives.
As they grew, Lily and Snow Flower suffered separately and together. Both of them had to endure foot binding, the torturous breaking, reshaping and compressing of a young girl’s feet in order to achieve perfection as determined by their male dominated culture. Foot binding resulted in deaths and crippling and if nothing else in the inability of a woman to ever walk long distances without extreme and debilitating pain. The actual foot binding practice is described with unflinching accuracy by Lisa See and is frankly not for the squeamish!
For many centuries girls were considered to be unwanted nuisances at best, or vile, useless drains on the family’s resources. When marrying, a girl would often have shouted after her: “Marrying a daughter is just like throwing out water!” Girls and women were instructed: “When a girl, obey your father; when a wife, obey your husband; when a widow, obey your son.” Disregarded, overworked, and severely limited in their self determination, it is all the more remarkable that many girls and women managed to maintain lifelong and loving friendships, and create bonds that even the cruelest of husbands, the nastiest of mothers-in-laws, or the harshest of fates could not break.
Yet written communication, devoid as it of the added information that glances, body language, or tone of voice supply, can be misread. These misreadings can lead to terrible misunderstandings as Lily and Snow Flower come to learn.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a wholly absorbing, incredibly beautiful, and entirely believable novel that will transport you to another place, another culture, and to other lives well worth honoring and remembering.