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Healing a devastated life: a Chinese daughter finds her inspiration in Norman Bethune.

Lily in the Snow

Yan Li

Women's Press

379 pages, softcover

ISBN 9780889614796

AT A TIME WHEN CHINA IS SO OFTEN IN THE news and increasingly portrayed as an emerging threat to the West, Chinese-Canadian author Yan Li, who has a foot in both countries, offers a fresh perspective. Her newest novel, by turns candid and tender, tragic and comical, chronicles the travails of new Chinese immigrants in small-town Ontario.

The tide, Lily in the Snow, for the three Chinese characters that make up the heroine's name, aptly describes a cast of characters who, having transplanted themselves from rich old soil, strive to take root in a cold new land. What sustains Lily, a seemingly meek and docile creature who routinely defers to others, including a harsh and tyrannical mother newly arrived from Beijing for a visit, is the hidden strength she draws from faith. Not from a god or a religion, although her curious, questing mind is graced with an unerring instinct for the commonalities that bind all humans. Rather, Lily's belief, her faithfulness and loyalty, reside in a shining moral ideal embodied in a single person. Not Mat Zedong, in case you are wondering, nor the Son of God worshipped by Christians, but just a man, long dead but even now, although a foreigner, so dearly beloved and revered in China that strangers who identify themselves as his countrymen are immediately greeted as warmly as kin. The Chinese call him [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] White Seeking Grace," for Lily's ideal is none other than Norman Bethune, her Ideal Canadian Man.

In fact, Lily's "hot admiration" for the trailblazing physician, whose innovations have saved millions of lives on every battlefield in the world, was what impelled her to leave her homeland. It was he and his country who were her Jerusalem, her Shining City on the Hill, hence her dismay, upon arrival, at discovering that few in Canada have ever heard of him. So few, she learns, that 95 percent of the pilgrims to the small Bethune museum she visits in Gravenhurst, Ontario, come from mainland China, and the remaining 5 percent from Spain, where Bethune's memory is cherished for the contribution he made to the fight for democracy against the combined assault by Franco, Hitler and Mussolini in the late 1930s. Bethune, of course, was the son of a Presbyterian minister, but to Lily his brand of communism, typified by a lifelong devotion to "the least of these," and his ultimate sacrifice in the cause of saving the lives of friend and foe alike seem more Christlike than the actions of many she meets here who call themselves Christian.

Lily's love, however, is not hero worship or idolatry, for her adoration is tempered by clear-eyed acceptance of the man's flaws, from his intemperate drinking and womanizing to his irascibility and intolerance of mediocrity. As a physician, however, whose compassion and empathy for the suffering, the poor and defenceless are the stuff of legend in China, he embodies the standard, the model that Lily aspires to emulate, most poignantly in relation to her mother, the viciously bitter Grace.

Many other characters populate the story, including the men in Lily's life, such as Majesty, the Chinese PhD student whom she briefly marries and who, like her, is reduced to entering domestic service on the country estate of a rich Ontarian. Lily and her compatriots suffer many indignities and disappointments in their elusive pursuit of economic security and personal happiness.

But the heart of the novel lies in Lily's painful reconnection with her mother, who comes barging into her life, uninvited, after years of estrangement. The soul-battered victim of successive Communist Party-led political campaigns culminating in the Cultural Revolution that have turned her once vibrant young life into a trail of wreckage, Grace has been mostly absent from Lily's life, and when she is present, has never expressed anything for her daughter other than rejection and disapproval. And yet Lily, stuffing down a world of hurt and the self-doubt left over from her lonely childhood, has stubbornly refused to be crippled. Now, unexpectedly faced with the opportunity and drawing strength from her own deep well of empathy and faith, she sets out to coax her mother out of her emotional barrens, back into the world of feelings--a filial kindness that Grace initially repays with howls of rage, as old wounds reopen and a fresh, new one raises the painful threshold that must be crossed before she can become whole. Nevertheless, ever so gradually as her daughter's sensitive antennae map out the contours of her distress, the healing begins and the relationship, like the near-dead asparagus plant Lily rescues from the trash, begins to revive and grow again. Lily has uncovered the burning little shrine hidden in Grace's heart, the tiny glow of warmth and light that has allowed her to survive in the dark tunnel of her life.

Some of the more intriguing aspects of the book are the many cross-cultural references that add context, texture and, often, a note of trenchant humour to the characters' reactions:
   In a small room, she had sat at a big table with
   thirteen men accused of domestic abuse. They
   looked either gloomy and fatigued or resentful
   and ready to bite, like a group of defeated
   gamecocks ...

      The instructor was a young white
   man with the perfect features often
   observed in Michelangelo's paintings.
   However, Lily's appreciation
   of his charming looks dropped
   away when he uttered the "F" word
   during his instruction on how to
   control anger and create a peaceful
   atmosphere at home. Throughout
   the three-hour lecture, the "F" word
   burst out of his finely curved lips at least a
   dozen times, like bullets shooting into Lily's

      When the morning was finally over, the
   young instructor blamed Lily for not interpreting
   efficiently to Old Chia. Obviously, Old
   Chia was not following the lecture. He had
   scared his classmates a couple of times when
   he had dozed off and banged his forehead
   noisily on the table.

      Lily rubbed her stiff neck while telling
   the handsome face that she was not going to
   come again. Catching a puzzled look in the
   blue eyes, she explained, "I don't have the
   nerve for this kind of company and I am not
   familiar with the vocabulary of your lecture."

But the author's depiction of Christian proselytes and their aggressive opportunism in converting newcomers, with a deluge of words that so often contrast with their deeds, can be downright disturbing, not only because of their effect on isolated, culture-shocked, economically vulnerable parents, but especially on their children. The irony is not lost on Lily, who has had first-hand experience of the damage wrought by ideology and the use of propaganda for opportunistic purposes.

This is Yan Li's second novel in English (her first, Daughters of the Red Land, was a finalist for the 1996 Books in Canada First Novel Award, and in January 2010 the Chinese edition was rated among the ten best literary books in China by one of the country's prestigious literary websites). Yan Li's style is unique, its images and cadences enriched by the mysterious fusion-like process of writing in two languages simultaneously, but her voice is unmistakably Chinese, resonant, even in English, with the boldness, power and elegance of that ancient language.

Michelle Tisseyre is a bilingual Quebec novelist and translator of fiction by English-speaking Canadian authors. Louis Riel, la fin d'un reve, her translation of Rudy Wiebe's The Scorched-Wood People, won the Governor General's Award in 1985. She lives in Montreal.
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Title Annotation:Lily in the Snow
Author:Tisseyre, Michelle
Publication:Literary Review of Canada
Article Type:Book review
Date:Nov 1, 2010
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