CM . . .
. Volume XX Number 41. . . .June 20, 2014
Circle of Cranes.
New York, NY: Dial Books for Young Readers (Distributed in Canada by Penguin Canada), 2012.
341 pp., hardcover, $18.00.
Kings, queens, rulers, etc.-Fiction.
Grades 5-8 / Ages 10-13.
Review by Rebecca King.
Suyin woke to the sound of reeds rustling. Night had fallen. She was still floating in the mud, though she’s lost all feeling in her body. Above her, a full moon shone on the surface of the lake. The ripples on the water were bathed in liquid gold. Four dark shapes moved out of the shadows, three black-necked cranes and a smaller exotic-looking bird.
“We’re going to get you out of the muck, little one,” said the tallest of the black-necked cranes. “Hang on to my neck.”
As she clung to the black-necked crane, her companions clamped their beaks on to her jacket and tugged. The mud made a loud thwack as it released her. The birds dragged her to a reedy island, where she lay shivering.
“Thank you,” said Suyin.
Suyin leaves school to answer the distress call of a crane. Her village is in an natural area of lakes and fens that is on the migration route of several cranes, and the birds are revered in her village. Suyin is particularly in tune with the cranes. In the process of helping a young crane that is caught in some shrubs, Suyin is sucked into a sinkhole and eventually is rescued by the cranes. The cranes fly her to He Shan, Crane Mountain, where she is allowed to choose a feather from the breast of one of the cranes, a heart feather, in a ceremony which promises that she will one day be able to transform into a crane.
Then Suyin awakes on a stretcher being carried back to her village where a feast is held to celebrate her return and the luck she may bring the village for having rescued a crane. A visitor walks into the village while the feast is being prepared. Lao is a snakehead, the agent of an employer or investor who lives in North America and arranges for people to travel to North America ("Gold Mountain") to work, for the fee of $50,000 US. The village is told of how their investment to send one of their number could pay off in benefits to the village and that the debt can be paid off on time from that person's wages. The village elders agree to this plan, the men in favour and the women against. Suyin, who is 13-years-old, is chosen because she is young and strong, can speak English better than the village teacher (she also speaks Korean and German) and is favoured by the cranes and will, therefore, be lucky. Suyin walks out of the village following Lao.
Though Lao had promised that she would travel to America on a cruise ship, she finds herself aboard a nearly derelict freighter with 38 other children in a space intended for a third of that number. During the trip, which will last four to six weeks, Suyin teaches English to her fellow travellers and forms a strong bond with two of the three girls and one boy. The ship sinks off the coast of British Columbia. Suyin nearly drowns but is saved by cranes, an event which is witnessed by Pang, the boy who has been kind to all the girls.
Gold Mountain is not what was promised. Suyin and the other girls find themselves working in a sweatshop in New York run by Sister Fang-Chou, the investor who owns their contract. Suyin is particularly disadvantaged because, though her village and the Miao people are noted for their embroidery, she was never allowed to learn to sew.
Mrs. Chin, a co-worker, came to New York thirty years before and is no farther advanced on the road to prosperity. Eventually, the depredations of Sister Fang-Chou and Lao, now the manager of the sweatshop, cause the staff of this sweatshop to strike, joining other larger groups on strike. Suyin struggles between her need to help her friends and the need to save her mother and the cranes. The scene shifts between the frighteningly real dangers faced by the striking workers and the fantastic world of Suyin's transformation into a crane. A happy ending eventually ensues.
LeBox's novel falls into two narrative lines that do not work well together. The first narrative line is the fantastical crane wife story derived from a Japanese folk tale. This narrative line provides for several character qualities of our heroine, Suyin. Suyin is the daughter of the Crane Queen and a village man who, though he loves his wife, becomes impatient with her annual absences. He follows her and sees her transformation, an act which traps her in her crane form. She is trapped in the Grey Lands, and he is killed trying to find her. This leaves Suyin a five-year-old orphan in the hands of a grandfather who blames her and her mother for her father's death. He forbids her to learn embroidery, the defining skill of the Miao women. This sets her apart from other girls of the village. When Suyin’s grandfather dies, the women of the village, being transforming cranes themselves, decide that Suyin should be fostered by the whole village, receiving love from all. Suyin later interprets this as that no one loved her enough to adopt her. She is also a skilled linguist, speaking English better than the village teacher, Korean like a native, and German as well. Her language skills are presumably the result of being the Crane Princess. Before she leaves her village, Suyin learns of her crane heritage, choosing a particularly strong feather, a heart feather, in a ceremony involving her transformed Aunties from the village, though she doesn't yet recognize them. She determines that, when she transforms, she will rescue her mother and save the waning crane populations. The cranes visit her throughout the story, rescuing her several times, bring her gifts and advice.
The second story line is unfortunately for those involved in the real situations much more ordinary. Suyin lives in an almost incredibly backward village in China. Though there is a school where English is taught, everything else in the village seems to indicate that the story is set in the nineteenth century. For a while, I expected her immigration to lead her to the building of the transcontinental railroad. I investigated the Immigration Acts of 1885 and 1900. Later, when it was obvious through the vans the children were shoved into and the cell phones used by Lao, Sister Fang-Chou and others, that we were in present day, I investigated the location of Suyin's village, CaoHai Lake, Guizhou, China. CaoHai Lake is a state-level natural reserve located in the western suburbs of Weining County. One reference suggests that it is possible to walk to the lake from the city with in half an hour. Of the approximately 300 images offered on Google, two show images of the Miao people and one of a relatively primitive village. I found it hard to accept that the people of Suyin's village would be so naive as to accept the offer made by Snakehead Lao and that anyone would still believe in the "streets paved with gold" story. The other immigrants readers meet are as naive in their expectations though they are city dwellers. Wing, who is 12 and from a somewhat well-to-do family (as she is wearing a gold necklace and ring), is still sent in the hopes that she will be able to improve her family's fortune. It is a testament to the desperation of people in China and other countries that these immigration stories still exist. (LeBox cites the interception of a number of migrant ships off the west coast of British Columbia in 1999 and 2000 as her inspiration for this book.)
The fantastical crane portions of the story interfere with the downtrodden-immigrant portions of the story. The story of how an ordinary girl was chosen to find fortune for her village and the trials and tribulations that beset her along the way could be compelling. Children who survive the conditions of hunger, filth, and overcrowding on the six-week journey across the Pacific only to find themselves escorted from a locked safe house to a sweatshop for 12-14 hour days of mind-numbing labor with timed bathroom breaks for little pay, letters from home withheld and wages docked for the least infringement of the rules, are true heroes. LeBox provides a cross section of this community by presenting Mrs. Chow, a successful and kind teashop and building owner; Mrs. Chin, who has been in New York for 30 years and still owes money and works in a sweatshop; Mr. Leung, a "beauty" shop owner who offers the girls more lucrative employment; Mrs. Tang, who buys Suyin's embroidery; the toughs who are enforcers for Sister Fang-Chou; and Mr. Lee, the labour organizer. Each has her/his part in the hope and despair of Suyin's situation. This picture is not enhanced or clarified by the cranes’ visits and gifts. It seems unlikely that, even with a magic needle, Suyin, a totally untrained seamstress, could produce fine enough embroidery to suit Mrs. Tang. Suyin's transformation into a crane takes her away from her friends just when she is needed to stop the despairing Wing from joining the "beauty" shop.
LeBox glosses over some key details in the immigrant experience. How did Sister and Lao get the children over the border from Canada? Suyin was mostly unconscious, and Pang tells readers that the rest were threatened to keep them quiet in the container when they crossed the border. There is no mention of Immigration Department raids on any of the sweatshops. Surely the strike that brought beneficial attention from the Labor Department might have brought on a few inquiries from Immigration. Also, it is never made clear how Suyin came to be in a position to travel home to China. After all, papers are required to leave the U.S. as well as to enter it, a fact omitted in "Part Three, Four Years Later." Suyin just arrives at her destination in China with no explanation of how she travelled. In fact, four years seems a short time to have paid off the village's debt of $50,000, and built a school, and paid for electricity and a new roof for the ancestral hall.
Suyin did not make a convincing heroine. She was supposed to be strong and resilient, and yet she seems to be receiving comfort from others more often than offering comfort to them. She interprets the fact that she is shared between her Aunties in the village as being that no one loves her enough to adopt her, rather than they all wish to share her. She repeatedly misinterprets the actions of others as well, blaming her best friend from the village for not having written (Suyin assumes she has been married and is too busy) and assuming Mrs. Tang has been profiting greatly from her work and paying her little. She becomes so involved with her own pain and the story of the cranes that she neglects her friends, Jade and Wing. She comes through by speaking out at the rally for the strikers, but it is too late to save Wing from drugs and prostitution.
The text has confused or incorrect references and misused words. For example, Sister's tooth is sheaved in gold and not sheathed. On page 53, first Lao is in charge, then another snakehead takes over and then Lao is in charge again in one paragraph. On page 103, tough looking teens step onto the street and are then described as men. On page 264-265, Mrs. Chin asks the girls if they want to return to work. When they refuse, she suggests they have two other options: the first is to borrow money from a loan shark, the second is never offered. Also, in the following passage, the narrator describes Suyin's transformation into a crane. The detail is overwhelming, and in the second paragraph just wrong. "Two chambers became four." Both humans and birds have four-chambered hearts.
She heard a wild thrumming. Spots danced before her eyes like stars exploding. Surges of energy like mild electric shocks flowed through her limbs. Her breath quickened. Her heart pounded like a drum. The ground shifted under her feet. The sky spun. The bones in her neck were lengthening and growing hollow. In her pectoral and pelvic girdle and her spinal column, the fusion occurred in one short rapid burst. Blood and marrow flowed through the narrow cavities of her bones. Pockets of air filled the spongy hollows of each new vertebra. Her humerus grew longer. The radial of her wrists became a lovely hinge. Her fingers grew together at the outer edges. Her arms became wings. She felt her teeth dissolving. Her mouth became fluid, flowing outward like a stream that suddenly hardened and then split into two parts to form her beak. Her voice box lengthened, hollowed, and coiled. Feathers sprouted from her skin like mushrooms after a rain: the small downies, the body contour feathers, the tertials, the primaries and secondaries.
Her heart was breaking. Two chambers became four. Blood rushed into her new body, as familiar as it was strange....” (pp. 226-227)
I really wanted to like this book. Unfortunately, I kept being interrupted by the cranes. I'm all for a good fantasy story, but this didn't hold together for me.
Rebecca King is a Library Support Specialist at Halifax Central Junior High and Saint Mary's Elementary School, Halifax Regional School Board, in Halifax, NS.
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