The Jade Peony by Wayson Choy will be defended by Samantha Nutt during Canada Reads 2010.

I finished this book several weeks ago but wanted to wait until after I met with our book club to discuss it. I missed the last discussion for Good to a Fault, so I was very excited to join in on The Jade Peony gathering. I’ve just returned from our discussion, but I will do my best to convey my before, during, and after feelings. It’s amazing how much your ideas can change once discussing a book!

My initial impression of the book was general enjoyment and actually a little bit embarrassed for the way Canada treated immigrants. I enjoyed how Wayson Choy examined Vancouver’s Chinatown from the perspective of three young children, as each take their turn to narrate the novel. I thought the novel was well-written and had some valuable insights into living in Vancouver as a Chinese person in the ’30s and ’40s. We got to see how a girl-child was treated, the middle-boy, and the youngest boy.

Chinatown, Vancouver, in the late 1930s and ‘40s provides the setting for this poignant first novel, told through the vivid and intense reminiscences of the three younger children of an immigrant family. They each experience a very different childhood, depending on age and sex, as they encounter the complexities of birth and death, love and hate, kinship and otherness. Mingling with the realities of Canada and the horror of war are the magic, ghosts, paper uncles and family secrets of Poh-Poh, or Grandmother, who is the heart and pillar of the family.

Wayson Choy’s Chinatown is a community of unforgettable individuals who are “neither this nor that,” neither entirely Canadian nor Chinese. But with each other’s help, they survive hardship and heartbreak with grit and humour.

[from the publisher, Douglas & McIntyre]

At book club, we started by talking about all our favourite characters. The discussion was very organic and sometimes we strayed far from topic (which I enjoyed too). I think my favourite was Jook-Liang and Monkey King (Wong Suk) and their relationship. A lot of people really liked Poh-Poh (Grandmother) as she is a very strong character and represents “old China” as well as being part of Vancouver. I think Stepmother is a very underrated character. There was some discussion about her role and position in the family as “second wife” and even her own birth children call her “Stepmother”.

Should this book win Canada Reads 2010? My first, gut response was no. My thought-process was: The Jade Peony won the City of Vancouver Book Award in 1996 and I think this book would be a great selection for the Vancouver Public Library’s One Book One Vancouver... but I don’t think that it is something that all Canadians “need to read”. I think that this is definitely something that Vancouverites and Lower Mainland residents should read and reflect upon.

But upon discussion with the book club, it was brought up that the books that win Canada Reads don’t necessarily have anything to do with Canada, they are just written by Canadian authors. With further discussion, I came to feel that this could be a good book for all Canadians to read… because really, who is Canadian? It is one of the points brought up by the children: “Am I Chinese or am I Canadian?” One of the great things about Canada is that we are a mosaic, you can be Canadian as well as something else — Chinese, Japanese, Ukranian, Croatian, Korean, etc.

The Jade Peony is all about characters and their environment. You would have a very different story if you took the book to Eastern Canada and tried to make it work there. Because it is a story of immigration and being from somewhere — a story of identity — you’d be hard-pressed to change the location. I think that it works and it opens your eyes to a whole different side of Canada and the government’s treatment of immigrants during this era. It is a story that would touch many Canadian people, whether they were born here or not, or their parents immigrated here or not.

The question of identity is never really answered by Wayson Choy in the novel, and I think that is okay. It is a continuing struggle to find out “who am I”, not just as an immigrant, or a Canadian, but as a person. At book club, one person teaches ESL and she related a story where her students were talking about a Canadian person they saw on the bus. She asked the students, “what made the person Canadian?” and they couldn’t really answer. To open their eyes to the lesson, she brought in several other teachers with different heritage and backgrounds and asked if they were Canadian or not.

I don’t really have an answer for “what is Canadian” or which book should win Canada Reads (I haven’t even finished all the books yet)… but I will say that The Jade Peony certainly opened my eyes to a part of Canadian history that I had forgotten. I was reminded about what I learned about the Cariboo Goldrush and the building of the CPR, and the Chinese Head Tax, and the Japanese Canadian internment… but it really is a different fact when you read a novel from the point of view of child experiencing these things within their own family. It’s an honest, yet confused portrayal of the time and the experiences of the people. I really enjoyed The Jade Peony for those reasons.

In addition to our “real life” book club, I’ve also joined the online Canada Reads Challenge! [Fun fact: another person from “real life” book club also joined the online challenge!]