Looking for Marco Polo by Alan Armstrong (J)

Looking for Marco Polo

Looking for Marco Polo   

Alan Armstrong (Juvenile Fiction)

Mark Hearn’s father is a teacher of anthropology and about to embark on a trip to the Gobi Desert.  Like Marco Polo, he wishes to meet and live with the desert people.  Before leaving, he gives Mark a worn copy of The Travels of Marco Polo and says that he will be following the same route as the famous explorer.  Mark receives frequent letters from his father, but when correspondence suddenly stops, he boards a plane to Venice with his mother in search of answers.  Mark’s old paperback suddenly becomes a map, holding clues to his father’s possible whereabouts.

After Mark and his mother arrive in Venice, you can divide this book into two sections.  The first we can call “Sightseeing in Venice” as the reader is provided several famous Venetian landmarks, as well as a few notable Polo sites (his former residence and the church he visited on feast days).  The second half focuses on Polo’s time in China and could be called “My Many Conversations with Kublai Khan”.  Here, the story drags a bit as Polo describes to Khan his multi-year journey.  It also chronicles Polo’s travels throughout the Mongol Empire.

Armstrong describes his book as a work of fiction stating, “The spine of travel is somewhat as Marco described it, as are the ribs of the larger adventures.  The rest is imagined, but possible…”.  Although many parts of the book are indeed overly dramatized and romanticized, the main points are factual:  Polo did travel through much of Asia with his father and uncle where they met Kublai Khan; Polo was imprisoned and dictated his story to a cellmate named Rustichello de Pisa; and Polo’s book did serve as inspiration to many later explorers, including Christopher Columbus.

If you mention Marco Polo to your child and the first thing that comes to mind is a pool game, then Armstrong’s book would be a good introduction to the man.  Perhaps it might even inspire your young reader to find out more about this famous merchant, trader, and explorer.  In the meantime…Marco!  Polo!

Rating: 3/5

* Book cover image attributed to http://www.amazon.com


Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan 

Lisa See (Adult Fiction)

Lily Yi was born on the fifth day of the sixth month of the third year of Emperor Daoguang’s reign.  Her matchmaker took one look at her and knew she was special.  In fact, Lily was so special that she was given a laotong, an “old same”, instead of the traditional sworn sisters that most girls receive.  A laotong relationship in Chinese culture is between two girls from different villages who are eternally bound to be kindred sisters and devoted companions.  At the age of seven, Lily is matched with a girl from the highly regarded Lu clan.  Her name is Snow Flower.  For over twenty years, their friendship endures arranged marriages, childbearing, disease, and death.  Throughout these events, the two write to one another in a secret women’s language—nu shu—on the folds of a fan.  One day, Lily receives a message from Snow Flower that threatens to tear apart their bond, although it is said that not even death itself can sever a laotong.

See not only gives us an extraordinary novel, but also an informative and unforgettable glimpse into Chinese culture and the lives of women in the early part of the 19th century.  We read how women are kept separated and isolated from outside life.  Women hidden away within the walls of their upstairs women’s chambers where they spend their days cooking, sewing, and praying for sons—their only measure of worth.  See also describes the unimaginably cruel and painful practice of footbinding.  This tradition begins with girls at age six and See’s description of the binding process is unmerciful in its details.  The suffering these young girls endure is truly horrific and beyond human comprehension and through the author’s masterful storytelling, we find ourselves experiencing their pain and agony alongside them.  (Thankfully, this practice was outlawed in 1912.)

See gives her readers a beautifully told story of devotion, sacrifice, regret, love, and forgiveness. Lily and Snow Flower are strong, intelligent, and fearless women willing to break long-honored cultural barriers in order to remain together.  Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a mesmerizing and heartbreaking novel whose story unfolds as effortlessly as the fan that Lily and Snow Flower share.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to http://www.goodreads.com