A Tale of two book discussions

November 16, 2014 at 2:47 am (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)


heroichistorymainFirst, AAUW Readers:

Sue Monk Kidd’s luminous novel opens with this sentence:

There was a time in Africa the people could fly.

And  how, in the early 1800s, the blacks of South Carolina wished they could take wing and escape their imprisonment in that cruelest of conditions,  chattel slavery. This “peculiar institution” – what an absurd euphemism! – is justly loathed for its forced labor, debased living conditions, and a host of other terrible impositions on the human spirit.

This novel is based on the true story of Sarah and Angelina Grimké, two sisters from antebellum South Carolina. Raised in opulent surroundings, they rebelled against a way of life that depended for its very existence on the work of slaves. Eventually they broke with their family and headed north, seeking shelter and making common cause with Quakers and other staunch abolitionists.

But this novel is equally the story of the daily lives of the slaves themselves. Hetty – also known as Handful, because she is one – is Sarah’s counterpart in the world of bondage. This is a spirited young woman, whose spirit is tested daily by the oppression which she has no choice but to endure. There are many reasons to be outraged by the living conditions imposed by slavery, but what The Invention of Wings also makes painfully clear is how circumscribed the life of a slave was, how devoid of meaningful occupation, how constricted the horizon. Enforced illiteracy was the capstone on this cruel edifice.

Not surprisingly, our discussion of this novel was impassioned. Some in the group had, in the past, lived in the Carolinas; their observations were illuminating, even surprising. Related reading was suggested; Jean’s mention of Song Yet Sung by James McBride sparked an interest in almost all who were present. Just before coming to the meeting, I’d found a program on the Abolitionists that can be viewed on the PBS site. The film opens with the (briefly told) story of Angelina Grimké.

This novel left me sadder and wiser; in addition, reading it was also an enraging experience. I’m at a loss to understand how a purportedly civilized people could ever have convinced themselves that it was acceptable to live this way.

Slavery tainted and debased all who were confined within its strictures. During a fraught interaction with Handful, Sarah experiences this unwelcome flash of self-knowledge:

I saw then what I hadn’t seen before, that I was very good at despising slavery in the abstract, in the removed and anonymous masses, but in the concrete, intimate flesh of the girl beside me, I’d lost  the ability to be repulsed by it. I’d grown comfortable with the particulars of evil. There’s a frightful muteness that dwells at  the center of all unspeakable things, and I had found my way into it.

This is what she and her sister had to battle against, both in the world around them and in their own hearts. And as for Handful, she had her own battles to fight. When she sees herself and fellow slaves listed as possessions – with dollar amounts beside their names! –  in the record books of her “Masters,” she reflects:

Goods and chattel. The words from the leather book came into my head.We were like the gold leaf mirror and the horse saddle. Not full-fledge people. I didn’t believe this, never had believed it a day in my life, but if you listen to white folks long enough, some sad, beaten-down part of you starts to wonder. All that pride about what we were worth left me then. For the first time, I felt the hurt and shame of just bring who I was.

Thanks are due to the AAUW Readers for a lively and stimulating afternoon. As for The Invention of Wings, it’s great book for discussion. A great book, period.

Sue Monk Kidd

Sue Monk Kidd, author of The Invention of Wings


72139-cover  Second, the Usual Suspects:

Published in 1961, The Haunted Monastery is the fifth entry in Robert  van Gulik’s Judge Dee series. The character of Judge Dee is based on an actual person. From Wikipedia:

The Judge Dee character is based on the historical figure Di Renjie (c. 630–c. 700), magistrate and statesman of the Tang court. During the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) in China, a “folk novel” was written set in former times, but filled with anachronisms. Van Gulik found in the 18th century Di Gong An (Chinese:狄公案 Pinyin: dí gōng àn, lit. “Cases of Judge Dee”) an original tale dealing with three cases simultaneously, and, which was unusual among Chinese mystery tales, a plot that for the most part lacked an overbearing supernatural element which could alienate Western readers. He translated it into English and had it published in 1949 under the title Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee.

The subsequent (and original) Judge Dee tales took their impetus from van Gulik’s initial act of translation.

Anne M., our discussion leader, provided us with this fascinating background material and much else besides. To begin with, Robert Hans van Gulik was an extremely gifted and accomplished individual. Born in the Netherlands in 1910, he spent his  early years in the Dutch East Indies, where his father served in the army as a physician. In 1923, his family returned to the Netherlands, where he completed high school, went on to university and eventually obtained a doctorate. His areas of specialization were all located in East Asia.  His professional life was spent in the foreign service. In fact, he had come to love all things Chinese, mastering the language and learning to play the guqin,  described as “a zither-type stringed instrument dating back to remote antiquity.” (See R.H. van Gulik and the Qin for more on this.) In 1943,  he married Shui Shifang, a college educated typist at the Dutch legation in China and the daughter of an imperial Mandarin. (More information about the life and work of Robert van Gulik can be found at Judge-Dee.info.)

As The Haunted Monastery opens, Judge Dee and his entourage are traveling through the mountainous region of Han-yuan. Soon they are overtaken by a violent storm and the axle of their coach vehicle is broken. Judge Dee sees no recourse but to seek shelter in a nearby religious community. This is Morning Cloud Cloud Monastery, a Taoist establishment. The Judge’s First Lady Wife – there are three of them – opines that it will be interesting to see the interior of the monastic complex. Her husband replies dismissively: “There isn’t much to see….It’s just an old monastery.” Needless to say, events prove otherwise.

When the party present themselves at the entrance, albeit unannounced, the Judge and his party are courteously received by the Prior. They are provided with nourishment and rooms in which to stay the night. And almost at once, mysteries begin to unfold, beginning with a bizarre scene  inadvertently witnessed by Judge Dee:

The window in the wall of the building opposite stood open; across the dividing space of six feet or so he looked into a dimly-lit room. He saw the broad back of a man wearing a close-fitting iron helmet who was trying to embrace a naked woman. She covered her face with her right arm, where the left should have been there was only a ragged stump. The man let go of her and she stumbled back against the wall. Then the wind tore the hooks of the shutters from Judge Dee’s hands, and they slammed shut in his face.With an oath he pushed them open again, but now he saw nothing but a dark curtain if rain.

The Haunted Monastery, with its plethora of dramatis personae,  its tangled plot – or should I say, plots – and the complex yet claustrophobic setting, was a challenging read.  For our edification, Anne provided us with a comprehensive list of characters; in addition, she had formulated wise and provocative discussion questions. She seemed to have an almost effortless command of every twist and turn in the story.

Our discussion ranged far and wide, in some cases raising questions that could only be answered by further research. We were particularly interested in Taoism and Confucianism, both of which play an important part in the narrative. The monastery is Taoist; the Judge is Confucian. Here are his ruminations on the Taoist faith:

“The question is, Tao Gan, whether we are meant to discover the mystery of life, and whether that discovery would make us happier. Taoism has many elevated thoughts; it teaches us to requite good with good, and bad also with good. But the instruction to requite bad with good belongs to a better age than we are living in now, Tao Gan! It’s a dream of the future, a beautiful dream — yet only a dream. I prefer to keep to the practical wisdom of our Master Confucius, who teaches us our simple, everyday duties to our fellow-men and to our society. And to requite good with good, and bad with justice!”

I liked Frank’s comment to the effect that while reading The Haunted Monastery, he had the feeling that the prose style was in some way distinctively Chinese. A reviewer on Goodreads makes a similar observation with regard to The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee:

One aspect of books and reading that I don’t often consider is the extent to which storytelling is a cultural form, often arising out of long-standing tradition. Modern American writing has such an emphasis on telling a good story as well as innovation in characterization and world-building that I forget about traditional forms. The manuscript of Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee is the product of an extensive tradition in Chinese detective storytelling.

In his Translator’s Preface to The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee,  Robert van Gulik enumerates the characteristics of that tradition. I’ve not been able to find this Preface online, but I did find a helpful summary of van Gulik’s main points on Wikipedia:

  • the detective is the local magistrate who is usually involved in several unrelated cases simultaneously;
  • the criminal is introduced at the very start of the story and his crime and reasons are carefully explained, thus constituting an inverted detective story rather than a “puzzle”;
  • the stories have a supernatural element with ghosts telling people about their death and even accusing the criminal;
  • the stories are filled with digressions into philosophy, the complete texts of official documents, and much more, making for very long books;
  • the novels tend to have a huge cast of characters, typically in the hundreds, all described as to their relation to the various main actors in the story.

Very few of these tales have been translated into Western languages. It was Robert van Gulik’s wish to remedy this situation to some small degree by his own efforts. Wanting very much to bring the character of Judge Dee to life for readers in the West, he then set about writing original stories that would achieve this goal. In the process he brings to life a time and place so remote as to seem like the stuff of dreams. And yet these people, with their dreams, desires, and disappointments, seem to some extent not so very different from us. (In The Haunted Monastery, one must make an exception, of course, for the last character on Anne’s list: “A Bear.”)

I highly recommend the spoken word version of the Judge Dee mysteries as performed by

Frank Muller. 51QAvvfwmaL._SL500_SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ I listened to them quite some time ago on audiotape, and I don’t know if they’ve ever been made available on a more current format. If not, tant pis; they are quite wonderful. (I own The Phantom in the Temple and would be happy to loan it out. Remember, though: you’ll need a cassette player!)

**Thanks once again to Anne for her lucid and meticulous presentation. It was masterful.**

Robert van Gulik illustrated the Judge Dee novels with his own line drawings. These two appear in The Haunted Monastery:

Judge Dee 2-M

Judge Dee 1-M


van Gulik plays Qin

Robert van Gulik plays the guqin



Robert Hans van Gulik 1910 – 1967




1 Comment

  1. Carol said,

    You ask “how a purportedly civilized people could ever have convinced themselves that it was acceptable to live this way” The answer is money. At this time, the South was the wealthiest part of the country – and that wealth was based on slavery. The old saying “Money is the root of all evil” has a good bit of truth to it.

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