Jialing is a zazhong with a missing Chinese mother and an unknown European father. In early twentieth-century Shanghai, society expects her to be a prostitute, as her mother, an accomplished musician, was forced to do. Instead, she is fortunate to be taken as a bond servant by the Yang family. First, the daughter of the house befriends her. Then, a minor miracle affords her the chance of obtaining some education.
At a mission school, Jialing learns English, but her ability to translate is no use when she tries to find work. A Women's Bank has opened in Shanghai, but she cannot seek a job there either. The lowly status of Eurasians causes both Chinese and Caucasian women to shrink from her, and encourages men to view her as a lowly whore.
As her eighteenth birthday nears, Jialing looks desperately for a way to survive after the Yang family have finished with her. She is overjoyed when she lands a job as a nanny for a foreign woman. Then, on the day her duties are to begin, the offer is withdrawn, in obvious deference to the social prejudice against "her kind." Now the young woman has no option but to place herself under the protection of a married man.
Meanwhile, an unlikely ally has watched over her since she was found as a child in the abandoned Western Residence of the Yang family home. The spirit woman Fox has been companion and friend, comforter, teacher and helper. As Jialing faces the dilemmas of womanhood, she realizes the value of Fox's friendship and the power of the mysterious secret the two have shared.
Fox remains steadfast as Jialing travels the hard road of experience toward forgiveness, self-trust, and understanding. Even so, when circumstances force the human woman to make the hardest decision of her life, she feels unprepared. Before taking a leap of faith, she must apply the lessons she has learned, as well as all she instinctively knows.
Set against the turbulent background of WWI-era Shanghai, this is the story of one woman's struggle for dignity and self-determination in a society with no compunction about denying her both. In our own time, Janie Chang's second novel holds a deep resonance. Many readers can relate to this timeless depiction of a woman determined to gain some control over her destiny.
In the real world, comparable stories are still taking place. Usually, women are the ones who face the harshest societal constraints, but this is not always the case. Reading this novel, I was reminded of the memoir of South African comedian Trevor Noah. With a Xhosa mother and Swiss father, he grew up under Apartheid, a system designed to curtail the opportunities of people with racially mixed backgrounds, as well as those with black skin.
Once more, Janie Chang has written a book that engrosses the reader with its depth of historical, moral and spiritual insight. It's a satisfying story and a book for our times.