In her latest book, Lisa See has given us a portrait of the Akha people, one of the minority hill tribes of China. The Akha live in the mountains of Yunnan province and, traditionally, their lives are ruled by ritual and superstition. And tea. Their lands are home to ancient tea trees that produce leaves that are greatly valued by tea nerds and connoisseurs and the Akhas' lives revolve around the growing, harvesting, and production of those tea leaves.
The story of the Akha is told through the life of one of the daughters of the tribe, Li-yan. We meet Li-yan as a child living with her extended family of parents, brothers, sisters-in-law, nieces and nephews, all of whom are involved in the production of tea. Li-yan's mother is one of the most important members of their community because she is a respected healer and midwife. Li-yan is expected to follow in her footsteps.
When she is twelve, Li-yan meets a boy named San-pa and is immediately infatuated with him. She falls in love and when she later sees him as a sixteen year old, she begins "stealing love" with him in the Akha terminology or, as we would say, having sex.
Soon the inevitable happens. Li-yan is pregnant, but her family has previously rejected San-pa's proposal of marriage because the two have incompatible birth days and San-pa is an undesirable partner for her. He subsequently left Yunnan, headed to Thailand to try to make his fortune so that they can marry. He did not know that Li-yan was already pregnant.
Part of the belief system of the Akha involves the concept of "human rejects." These are infants that are born in less than optimal circumstances, who would thus require extra care and resources of the tribe. Such babies are to be smothered at birth.
We are provided with a heartbreaking example of this early in the book when one of the village women has twins. The ritual requires that they be smothered by their father and then their bodies wrapped and taken into the forest and burned. The next day, both mother and father are banished from the village and must make their way alone in the world. Li-yan assisted her mother, the midwife, at this birth and witnessed the killing of the children.
When she became pregnant, she realized that her baby would be a "human reject" because it had no father, but she and her mother manage to hide her pregnancy. When the time comes for her to be delivered of the child, they go to a secret grove of tea and camphor trees. The mother/midwife fully intends to smother the child according to ritual, but when she is born, Li-yan picks her up and cradles her to her breast and a new plan is hatched.
They pack the child in a basket and Li-yan heads out with her on a perilous trek through the forest to the nearest city where she will leave her at the door of an orphanage. In the blanket in which the baby is swaddled, her grandmother tucks a tea cake, a cake of pressed tea leaves wrapped in paper with the outline of the mountains of her birthplace drawn on it. This memento will stay with her, even after she is adopted by a couple in California and becomes a fortunate child named Haley. Eventually, the tea cake will lead her back to the mountains of her birth.
Meanwhile, her mother, Li-yan receives help from a teacher to pursue a higher education, the first from her tribe to do so. She ultimately becomes a tea trader and her prosperity helps to raise the fortunes of her entire tribe.
This was a fascinating story, told compellingly. There is so much information here about the superstitions of the Akha, the tea industry, concurrent Chinese history, including the Cultural Revolution and the one child policy, and the evolving of China, as well as the Akha, into a market economy that it could have become completely overwhelming, but See manages to feed it to her readers in reasonable portions. That being said, I did feel that the story dragged a bit from the middle toward the end, and there was an awful lot of fortuitous coincidence involved in the resolution of the tale. Still, it was a resolution devoutly to be wished, so why quibble? There's nothing wrong with an occasional uncomplicated happy ending!
My rating: 4 of 5 stars