Autobiographical in nature, Homesick integrates events in the author’s childhood with her sense that she is fundamentally American, and can never belong in China. We see why. Her China was a muddle of prejudice, envy and blind tradition.
Jean Fritz was a ten year old living in the British American ‘concession’ of Hankow China, during her father’s term as director of the local YMCA. She presents her life as a series of detailed vignettes: a British bully’s insistence that she sing “God Save the King” at school, the little Chinese boy she treats with oranges and who calls her a “foreign devil”, their ocean side summer vacation, the loss of her newborn sister, her friendship with Andrea, the revolutionary siege of WuChang, and her escape to, and first experiences in, American society.
Though the plot lacks the excitement of a moral conflict, we gradually begin to appreciate her isolation from the society in which she has grown up. Ties with American relatives, through the time delayed means of letters, show her that America is where her mind belongs, and she becomes ever more eager for her father’s directorship to end.
The revolutionary struggle between the Nationalist Party (of Chaing Kai Shek) and the less successful but still quite popular Communists (under a young Mao Tse Tung) thrusts its way into her home atmosphere. The family’s trusted Chinese workers subtly and not so subtly express their chosen views, frequently reminding Jean that she is American, not Chinese. Beyond her family’s private enclave the enmity is sometimes explicit. As her father’s term approaches completion, the political tension makes safe departure increasingly uncertain.
Critique: (plot spoilers follow)
This story is valid as a Discovery work, but classified as Fiction because the author admits she has filled in gaps in her memories and added dialogue where it might be useful. Thus each vignette offers information and perspective that make it worthwhile. If one reads for excitement, rather than understanding, then the number of vignettes may seem to drag. The climax of the story is not relief from the Chinese one might expect. Instead, its conclusion offers a certain profundity.
Admirably, young Jean is aware, on a certain level, that she wants to live among people who think and act on Western values. When she arrives in West Virginia, via San Francisco, she receives the family welcome of which she had dreamt. School is another matter.
Jean finds she has been transported from school and dogmatism in Hankow, to school and dogmatism in West Virginia. But, it is in West Virginia’s school that she meets Donald! We soon realize that Donald’s character is truly Western, and in this quiet, almost implicit manner, we find the true climax of the story. Jean has found her values at last. Only America enocourages (but does not guarantee) the type of mind where she can feel welcome. It is a shame that Fritz did not make this a clearer statement, as some readers will see it merely as ‘fitting in at last’.
Homesick”concludes with two appendices. The first is “Background of Chinese History, 1913-1927. Here we learn that, “In a series of ‘unequal’ treaties foreign nations gained ‘concessions’ in which Western law was practiced and Western police kept order.” She describes this as the West “forcing their way into the country.” However, Western principles (for trade) reflect an understanding of, and respect for, the individual right of property and contract, regardless of age, race or cultural standing. Westerners in China had to work to ensure those conditions. No doubt some slippery arrangements took place, but readers can expect that the concessions of which Fritz mentions, however resented, were an attempt at more honest and efficient trade, not a forcible invasion..
Jean tells us that Mao Tse Tung’s communists took over mainland China, leaving only Taiwan under Chiang Kai Shek’s control. She seems indifferent to the communists’ deadly and lasting impact on the Chinese (millions died!). As of 2005, China’s Gross National Product (GNP) is only $5,600 per person. It is ‘telling’ that Taiwan, which developed from Chiang Kai Shek’s leadership using a more Western approach to law, has a Gross National Product of $25,300 per person. China is now 2005) directing missiles towards Taiwan and threatening to annex it.
The final appendix presents black and white photos of Jean and her family at some of the events described in the story –would that they had been appropriately placed in the text. At the back, the illustrations deprive us of the opportunity to integrate them with the appropriate moments in the story.
“Homesick” is an interesting, worthwhile read.