The Distant Land of My Father by Bo Caldwell
The story of Anna Schoene’s childhood in Shanghai, China in the 1930s and her late childhood and teen years in Pasadena is so thick with period detail, that both locales should come alive for the reader. In fact, it is this abundance of detail that, though I often found it contrived and irritating, would work well for you if you select this novel to start your Junior Project.
Anna’s father, Joesph, is the son of missionaries and was born in China. He speaks fluent Mandarin and passionately loves Shanghai, staying there to run a rather shady import-export business even when the dangers of doing so are evident to everyone around him. While foreigners leave the country, Joseph allows his wife and child to depart without him. He has survived being kidnapped. Once Shanghai falls to the Japanese (WW II), Joseph is taken as a prisoner of war and tortured. Surviving, he briefly joins his wife and daughter in Pasadena, but can’t settle there. He goes back to China, and eventually Shanghai, where he becomes the prisoner of the Chinese Communists for four years until he is inexplicably released and then expelled from Hong Kong in 1954. The chapters on Joseph’s various imprisonments are riveting.
Once back in the states, Joseph moves close to Anna, now an adult with children, and makes efforts to reconnect. Anna’s mother has died of leukemia and Anna’s grandmother tells her to be careful—Joseph has proven to be self-serving and has always put his interests above his family. Yet, before she died, Anna’s mother has told her that she should forgive her father. It is this theme of forgiveness which adds depth to the book.
What seems contrived in this novel will actually benefit you in your project. The book reads as though the author had done research, not only in historical documents, but also by perusing every “Life” and “Look” magazine of the period that she could get her hands on. Perhaps she hates to have wasted that time and wants to include everything she found—a common post-research mistake. And so as a reader, you will be treated to the titles of popular movies, the names of recording artists, songs and albums, the names of local restaurants and their order on the street as well as a run down of the menu of each. You’ll even learn what brand and shade lipstick Anna’s mother wears—because Anna’s mother is proud to share this information with her (huh?). When you turn from the fiction to the research, you’ll have a plethora of 1930s-1950s details to choose from.