Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Cloud Mountain by Aimee Liu

Title: Cloud Mountain
Author: Aimee Liu
Publisher: Warner Books (1997)

Cloud Mountain is the story of an American woman and a Chinese man who fall in love in California in the early 20th Century. At this time in the United States marriage between them is illegal almost everywhere and the prejudice against interracial couples high. Despite societal and family obstacles, Hope Newfield and Liang Po-yu (Paul Leon) pursue their love and marry in a little Wyoming town where interracial marriage is legal. They make their home in Berkeley for 5 years before moving to China.

The story told in Cloud Mountain was inspired by the author’s grandparents. Aimee Liu, while never knowing her grandparents, used her family’s history, writings, and stories to follow the chronology of the marriage of her grandparents. It is an incredible story and the daring of these two young people should not be underestimated. As modern readers we are lucky to live in a time where the world has become smaller and minds are continuing to open to diversity. But during the time described in Cloud Mountain the idea of marrying outside your race or ethnic background, much less your citizenship and moving around the world, was extremely rare.

This book is very good but it had a slow start for me. The slow start was my fault and not the author's. The opening chapters started off very much like a romance novel. I’m certainly not one to turn up my nose at a romance but it caught me off guard. There was the heroine with a lost love, a current love she wasn’t really interested in, and then the hero enters and zing! there is an instant connection. My mind was ready for a sweeping portrayal of the turbulent racial situation in America and the politics of China but instead there was a boy and girl and they fell in love. After finishing the book I felt like a right dolt (<-- do people still say this?) for my blunder with the beginning. As I described above, Hope and Po-yu were subjected to many obstacles to their being together. The challenges presented by their heritage and cultural backgrounds continue through much of their relationship. In that sense, it would almost have to be a love as instant and over-powering as theirs to have brought them together, and kept them together, through the tumultuous years of their marriage.

Po-yu is highly educated and from a rich family. He is dedicated to ending imperialism in China and his involvement in politics has him in exile from China. Ostensibly, he is in Berkeley to study (he meets Hope because she is an English language tutor) but, more importantly, he works on a Chinese newspaper to inform US residents of Chinese politics and raise money for the revolution against the Manchu Imperialists. After he and Hope have been married 5 years, the Manchus are overthrown and Po-yu can return to China. Hope and their daughter soon follow and for the next 21 years it is where they make their home.

The style that Liu chose for this story is very well done. There is a mix of narrative, diary entries by Hope, and letters between family and friends. The choice to include the diary entries and letters brought much to the novel. The increased intimacy and perspective gave the story a richness that it would not otherwise have had. Also, I was especially impressed with Liu’s ability to show the trappings of culture and how they can divide even those who are actively committed to each other. Hope and Po-yu were clearly very much in love and extremely progressive, yet despite this their cultural socialization often came between them. Liu’s balance of love, individuality, and the wisdom that comes with experience was well-maintained throughout the story making her characters wonderfully layered and accessible.

I think Chinese history is pretty fascinating in general but the 20th Century is especially intriguing to me. The historical backdrop to Hope and Po-yu's relationship is just as interesting as the characters. They are in China as Imperialism is ended but the new republic is shaky (this is the most ridiculously inadequate description of the various political factions involved so do yourself a favor and go learn about the details - it's fascinating stuff) making for a politically unstable government. The entire Century is worth learning about but this snapshot of years is just as interesting as any other and makes for a rich background. 

The following point of discussion is spoilerish so highlight if interested: There’s a time in their marriage when Hope is depressed and estranged from Po-yu. In this period she has a lot of interaction with their friend Mann and feels attracted to him and the life he leads. After she has come to realize that she does not have true feelings for Mann and remains dedicated to Po-yu, she makes a very interesting observation that Mann is the kind of man that can’t survive without a wife and that Po-yu might be someone that should never have married. At the same time she observes how shallow Mann’s feelings are for others versus the depth of feeling Po-yu is capable of. Po-yu is extremely dedicated to his political cause and is often negligent of his family. However, his deep love for Hope is never in any doubt. It's interesting to think about what it takes to love so deeply and what it means to fulfill the obligations of that love. Po-yu is clearly capable of deep and abiding love but he has that same intense love for his country and his country’s future. Is it right for someone like this to have a family? Where is the line between your obligations to your family and to your individual passions? Is there a line? In our more modern times where each partner is more likely to have the opportunities for an independent life and income is this less of an issue? I found myself coming back to this over and over even though I don't think there's any one answer.

I highly recommend this book. The story is compelling, the writing excellent and the end will make you think about what it means to love and how individuals express that love. Though not a short book it never feels long and I think almost anyone will find the experience enriching and satisfying. To learn more about the amazing couple that inspired this story click here.

rating: 5 of 5 stars

1 comment:

  1. I just finished reading this novel and am truly amazed by the steadfast devotion and untiring love of the heroine. Wow, there was a woman who can endured so much for the man and family she love.