Last Christmas my aunt brought over a large bag containing “12 Days of Christmas” gifts–one of which happened to be the The Ginger Tree by Oswald Wynd. Unfortunately, my grandma gifted me Influenza, so I put the book aside in favor of–oh, I don’t know–sleep. As days turned into weeks, other titles began to stack one on top of another. That’s how it works in my household; books are a lot like rabbits, they multiply at an alarming rate. By the time I finally uncovered The Ginger Tree, it was mid-February–the perfect time, it would seem, to set out on an adventure.
For that’s exactly how the book begins–on the cusp of adventure. It begins with the diary entry of a young Scotswoman named Mary Mackenzie. She’s twenty years old when she pens the date, January9, 1903, from a ship bound for China, where she’s to meet her betrothed. That’s how we piece together her story, you see–forty years worth of diary entries and correspondence. We follow her as she experiences the world for the first time, outside the strict confines of her upbringing; we follow her as she marries and becomes a mother, as she scandalizes the British community (and her own family), as she moves to Japan and struggles to find her way.
I can’t say Mary Mackenzie is a favorite character; perhaps it’s my age, but there were times when I wanted to slap some sense into that girl. At the same time, my heart ached for her–and, when all was said and done, I appreciated her ability to adapt, to overcome, to find a way forward no matter what stood in the way.
All in all, I loved her story.
The book covers many themes–love and loss; joy and sorrow; growing pains . . . both as a person and as a country; cultural boundaries; the consequences of our actions–and they’re as vibrant as the setting in which the story’s set.
That’s Wynd’s first strength: his ability to write in blocks of diary entries and letters, without feeling clunky or losing momentum. It may seem a simple thing to do, but it’s actually quite impressive to pull off.
Then, there’s the way in which he describes the land, its people and customs. Yes, The Ginger Tree is Mary Mackenzie’s story. But her story encompasses two world wars and the great Tokyo earthquake of 1923. It was interesting to read something of the wars from the shores of Japan; it was the first I’d ever heard of the earthquake–the descriptions of which prompted me to do a bit of research (completely horrifying, I might add).
Not that historical accuracy should come as any surprise. You might say the Far East was in Oswald Wynd’s blood. He was a Scottish writer, true enough. But he was born in Tokyo to Baptist missionaries. With dual nationality, he spoke both English and Japanese; he even considered Japan his home–once, before his brutal three year sentence to a Japanese prisoner of war camp during WWII.
No doubt it’s his personal experience that make this book so rich and full of life. And makes the theme of betrayal ring so heartbreakingly true.