In a Land of Paper Gods, by Rebecca MacKenzie, is a book that I approached with high expectations having read many glowing reviews. Perhaps for this reason it took some time before I felt fully engaged. Yet the early chapters were necessary in order to understand what came next. By half way through my heart was hurting for what had been done to the young protagonist. This was the human cost of religious fervour from a point of view I had not previously considered, and having been inspired by true events was all the more difficult to comprehend.
“Missionary parents need somewhere to send their children so that they might continue their work. […] As Jesus said to Peter, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold.” God will bless us for these sacrifices […] The adults nodded and murmoured. I felt furiously sick.”
Etta is a young schoolgirl born in China, sent away when she was six years old to a boarding school for the children of British missionaries on the distant mountain of Lushan. Prior to this she had spoken Chinese as well as English and answered to her Chinese name of Ming-Mei, which means bright and beautiful. Now aged ten she has only vague memories of her parents having seen them but twice in the interim. She is forbidden to speak Chinese whilst at school.
Etta is a lively, boistrous girl, regularly losing points from her Goodness Card for untidiness and unseemly behaviour. Like all children, she craves admiration. When she believes that God has spoken to her she sets up the Prophetess Club, recruiting the other girls from her dormitory. When one of these girls threatens to gain control Etta dreams up tasks to draw the others back to her. She takes them out of bounds, to a glade she has discovered where a young Chinese girl plays. She proposes that they copy their elders and convert the child, with tragic results.
In the background are the rumblings of the Second Sino-Japanese War. The cruelties of children and loneliness of the school regime give way to the more extreme experiences of wartime occupation. The challenges Etta and her school must face are now physical as well as mental.
The poignancy of children sent away by their parents is painfully presented. When a mother pays a visit to the school her young son breaks down when she leaves and must be manhandled away. A girl from Etta’s dormitory, Sarah Charleston, has her mother come for a short stay. The girls are taken to a mountain pool to play, all eager to experience a mother for themselves.
“We dived – Mrs Charleston, look at me! We bombed – Mrs Charleston, watch this! We roly-polied underwater – Mrs Charleston, did you see that? We swung on the vine, out over the pool – Mrs Chrleston, look, I’m a monkey! Mrs Charleston’s name rang across the forest. Even Sarah leapt up on the vine shouting, ‘Look at me, Mrs Charleston!’ When she caught what she said, a look of pain crossed her face, and she fell into the pool.”
The arrival of the war to their doorstep curtails such visits. The children hear news of parents escaping the country, or being held prisoner in camps. They wonder if they will ever again see these strangers who have become faded memories, black and wight images from the photograph each keeps on their bedside cabinet.
The author brings China, especially the mountain of Lushan with its mists and glades and temples, to life with stunning imagery. Etta’s journey goes briefly beyond, but the girls’ known world is their school until the soldiers arrive. They have learned to follow rules and live within themselves, indoctrinated with the Christian teachings and starved of love. One of the first acts of a threatening Japanese soldier is to free a young boy from a cruel punishment inflicted by a teacher. Etta had once again broken rules by trying to offer comfort.
The war forces the residents of the school to live in constrained and tightened circumstances. It also allows the children to experience more worldly adults and Etta begins to understand that there are other ways to live. Her subversive tendencies become her strength despite the continuing rejection by her peers.
I wondered how the suffering inflicted on these children, instigated by their own parents, would affect them in later life. So much hurt had to be suppressed in order to survive. Perhaps this is why our boarding school educated politicians appear to lack the ability to empathise.
This poignant tale slowly engulfs the reader with its beautifully crafted prose. I ache for what these children were put through, and not just by the war. A highly recommended read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tinder Press.