Friday, May 27, 2011

Book Review: The Distant Land of My Father

'The Distant Land of My Father'
Author: Bo Caldwell

Format: Paperback
Published: Harvest Books; Sept. 2002
Pages: 378
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: A
Source: Personal Copy

Synopsis: The Distant Land of My Father begins like a fairy tale: "My father was a millionaire in Shanghai in the 1930s.... On the day he was born, in the province of Shantung, neighbors presented my missionary grandparents, the only Americans for miles, with noodles in great abundance and one hundred chicken eggs, in honor of their son's birth." To the young Anna Schoene, life in Shanghai is indeed magical. There are servants, a luxurious villa, a beautiful mother who smells like Chanel No. 5, and a young, handsome, polo-playing father. Unfortunately, her father is also a smuggler and speculator who loves his freewheeling life more than anything (or anyone) else. Despite warnings, Schoene refuses to leave Shanghai even after the Japanese invade, and his wife and child retreat to Los Angeles; later, he survives imprisonment and torture only to once again choose Shanghai over his family--this time with the Communists moving in.

My Take: I remember seeing this book on some lists a few years ago and just knowing that I needed to read it. It had all of the makings of a book I would love: history, family drama, war, shady dealings. What do you know? I was right. I fell in love with this book! Also, I am particularly happy about this because the author, Bo Caldwell, is from the Bay Area and, well that always makes me smile!

We have quite the saga all rolled up into this story. You might look at the page count and not think it's too much but you will want to spend some serious time with this novel because you will get wrapped up with Anna Schoene as she grows up. She is a wonderful narrator. We first meet her when she is six growing up in Shanghai with her beautiful mother and her enigmatic father. Her parents are American but her dad has learned how to make serious money in Shanghai, although it may be through shady means! This is in the 1930s and it is the height of the glory of Shanghai. China is all little Anna has ever known (and yes, finally a book with a China setting that I love again!).

Then the rumblings of World War II begin and life begins to change. Here's where things get interesting. You usually think of fathers as someone you'd look up to and people who have foresight. You need to depend on them and Anna loved her father dearly but Joseph started to take some bad turns. When the War broke out in China, Anna's mother sensed that things would not be well and wanted to move the family 'home' to Pasadena, CA. Joseph chose to stay.

Through the years, WWII, and the the beginnings of Communist China, no matter how much his family wanted to love him, Joseph loved Shanghai more. It was interesting to watch that play out. How does a family learn to cope with this development? Do they move on or do they try to lure him back? Do they get angry and steel themselves against him or do they miss him forever? 

Then of course Anna becomes an adult and a parent herself and she soon learns that parents are not the infallible creatures we once thought they were. That's when the novel truly is at it's best. To watch a father and daughter play out their emotions, well it was so real and, honestly, I could relate. 

I can not recommend this book highly enough. You will go through a huge amount of history. Learn a lot about how history changed Shanghai and how one man can forever change the dynamics of a family. This movie needs to be made into a movie!

I am thrilled to learn that Bo Caldwell has a second novel out, The City of Tranquil Light. Has any one read this book?

Cover Lust: I love the original photography! It really sets the scene!


  1. oooh, this sounds so good, i must read this!

  2. Sounds like an amazing book. The stories we hear from WWII never cease to amaze me.

  3. That good? Sounds good enough for me :D I'd like to read it and learn a bit of history at the same time

  4. I love historical fiction book. I'd love to read this book.I have never read any book with Shanghai's history as the setting.Especially when it's connected the WW.

  5. Sounds like a great story. Glad to see u rated it so high.

  6. This sounds like a great story combined with a great history lesson. I will have to check it out!

  7. I really want to read this one after reading your review and finding out this is a Bay Area author!

  8. What a fascinating story. It sounds like it works on many different levels. And I'd love to see a movie like this!

  9. Sounds too interesting and fascinating to miss. Thanks for thr review, I would have missed this book completely otherwise.

    If you don't mind can I include a link for this in the south east asian challenge database?

  10. So glad you all might read this book - I truly think it is fab!

    Violet - yes please link to it!

  11. A year or two ago, I recommended this book to everybody I met...perfect strangers, even. It's one of my all-time faves forever. So rich and well-researched. I am glad you liked it, too!


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