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A Literary & Poetry Column
By Carolyn Howard-Johnson

Carolyn Unfolds the Mysteries of Culture, Language and Writing Subtly Like the Whisper of a Fan

A Carolyn Howard-Johnson Review for Riters ™

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
By Lisa See
Published by Random House
ISBN: 0812968069
Fiction Novel

Rating 5 of 5

How does a reviewer appraise a book that is at once history, a saga, a literary novel, a book of poetry and a feminist force? What standards might she apply to the structure, the characterization, the dialogue, the premise? In this case maybe she would open it like fan, let it whisper its secrets one spoke at a time. Readers would see the value there and writers, too, would learn something of their craft.

This case, of course, is this review of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See. It is the story of the mysterious and beautiful language of Nu Shu. I capitalize the name of this language even though See chose not to, probably because the Chinese women who wrote and spoke the language didn't. Although it was a language of position and identity, just as English or any other language is, it was also secret. The women who practiced it—it was more of a practice than simply a language that "merely" reflects and inspires a culture— probably wouldn't have thought to make their nu shu more than they thought their humble tongue might warrant, though they undoubtedly recognized its importance in their life.

The mystery of Nu Shu is brought alive by a woman of eighty who tells her own story and that of Moon Flower, her laotong—other self or "other same" as it is often translated. See doesn't call the first few chapters of this telling a prologue, but it is or could be, if she'd chosen to call it that. (Lesson number one for writers: We needn't necessarily abide protocol if there is a very good reason not to and we certainly needn't use the same old labels others have used when we choose to follow tradition.) This prologue of sorts is called "Sitting Quietly." It sets the reader up for the history and life of this ancient. After only three pages we meet Lily, a "so-so girl" not yet of foot-binding age, whom we quickly learn is the same woman who had just spoken to us of her long life. What a wonderful technique to suggest the credibility and wisdom of a retold story while keeping the reader enthralled with a first person adventure told in the moment.

This is also the story of laotong, a unique kind of love between girls that continues on through their married life and is peculiar (at least this particular incarnation) to ancient Chinese culture. It is a love-partnership that is both arranged and chosen, contracted as firmly as a marriage pact (in fact more firmly in the eyes of the participating women). The formalized love-friendship is bound to the language women of this singular ethnic group developed and practiced as a means of emotional—and sometimes physical— survival.

See's meticulous research and her channeling of this woman becomes a saga that lets the reader into the souls and times of pre-Mao China. To do this, See uses narrative heavily. She doesn't ignore that modern readers need their dialogue to feel part of the story and it might be missed if the dialogue she uses was not done so well. It rings with authenticity because she doesn't attempt to imitate an accent. She uses simple words and phrasing to achieve a Chinese lilt instead.

Snow Flower is heavy on telling because the story necessitates it; it works because it is told in first person so the reader has a sense that the narrative is spoken. It also works because the setting and culture are so fascinating that we are most happy to sit still in large enough chunks to absorb all this mystery, culture, repression, joy, sadness, and pain into our pores.

See also lets the reader learn of the intricacies of the culture, the characters and their relationships slowly, as Lily comes to understand them. That is an unfolding—one delicate rib of the fan at a time—that surely required as much planning as the most detailed mystery.

A national bestseller, this is a gripping novel but, for the writer, it can also be an illuminating text on the essentials of writing and even the intricacies of formatting and style. For the latter see page 14 of the paperback edition where See breaks the "No-Internal-Dialogue-In-Italics-Rule and the No-Emphasis-In-Italics Rule in one phrase (perhaps the only time in the entire book) with the poignant cry from the heart of a child for her mother to See me! See me! See me!

The chant may be a song, from the heart of the author who senses that if we see her, we might—regardless of the genre we write in—be better writers.

Reviewed by Carolyn Howard-Johnson, author of This is the Place, Harkening: A Collection of Stories Remembered, Tracings, and the How To Do It Frugally Series of book for writers

Tips and Tidbits

Each month in this box, Carolyn lists a writing or promotion tidbit that will help authors and a tip to help readers find a treasure among long-neglected books or a sapphire among the newly-published.

Writers' Tidbit: Carolyn has a new website where writers will find "Resources for Writers," by clicking on the tab at the top of the website. There writers will find lists of book fairs, article disseminators, websites that distribute media releases free and even a list of books that can make a difference in any writing career. It is growing. Check back often.

Readers' Tip: Pick up a classic now and then. My vote for this month is a reread of Main Street by Sinclair Lewis. I spoke at a writers conference recently and was fortunate enough to see the authors' original Main Street in Sauk Centre, Minnesota. I think I'll get more from the book now I've seen the real place (and after stuffing several years writing and reading experience under my belt). If you read it, let me know what you think. In my original reading I thought it good, but nothing like Steinbeck! My e-mail is

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Review of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

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