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Reading the Past
Amy Tan's
The Bonesetter's Daughter

by Daphne Frostchild

Ruth Young, the protagonist of Amy Tan's beautifully written The Bonesetter's Daughter, learns to accept herself by facing her mother's secret story.

Ruth Young, the forty-six-year-old protagonist of Amy Tan's The Bonesetter's Daughter, is used to listening to other people's stories and turning them into coherent, if not exactly profound books. She's a freelance editor, and Tan writes that


She had been in the business long enough to see the terms evolve from "chakras" to "ch'i," "prana," "vital energy," "life force," "biomagnetic force," "bioenergy fields," and finally, back to "chakras." In bookstores, most of her clients' words of wisdom were placed in the light or popular sections--Self-Help, Wellness, Inspirational, New Age. She wished she were working on books that would be categorized as Philosophy, Science, Medicine.

The Bonesetter's Daughter
Amy Tan
400 pp.
$25.95 order now logo


Whatever she might think of the finished books, Ruth is psychologically well-suited for the job: she's methodical, level-headed, and resoundingly responsible. Her cautious nature has its downsides, though, as her lover, Art, tells her: "You're like someone who has cataracts and wants to see, but you refuse to have an operation because you're afraid to go blind. You'd rather go blind slowly than take a chance. And then you can't see that the answer is right in front of you." Art is right, of course (when are characters ever wrong when they make these sorts of speeches?). And as it turns out, the thing Ruth has been most hesitant--perhaps even fearful--to acknowledge is her mother's story and her own place in it.

The fact that her mother actually gave Ruth a manuscript telling her story in Chinese doesn't help: Ruth, after all, isn't fluent in Chinese, so she has a ready excuse to avoid the manuscript. But Ruth's mother, LuLing, is seventy-seven as the novel opens, and her apparently failing memory and the threat of Alzheimer's draw mother and daughter closer together, if only because Ruth fears her mother may unintentionally harm herself if not watched closely. Ruth is in that terrible position many adults face with aging parents: "She was her mother's child and mother to the child her mother had become. So many combinations, like Chinese names and characters, the same elements, seemingly simple, reconfigured in different ways."

Perhaps the biggest problem Ruth faces, though, lies in the past she and her mother collude to repress. It's largely the cultural differences that separate them--while Ruth considers herself entirely American, LuLing has never even bothered to master English after being in America for fifty years, and LuLing's poor English and misunderstood, conservative worries embarrassed Ruth even when she was a young child. As an adolescent, Ruth gained a little control in the relationship and learned to manipulate her mother through her cultural beliefs (further undermining the relationship, of course), as we see in this beautifully handled scene in which Ruth draws on her mother's belief in ghosts and a sort of automatic writing to get permission to watch The Wizard of Oz on their neighbors' new color TV:


"Last year, report card, you get one Satisfactory, not even Good. Should be everything Excellent. Tonight better study more."

"But that was in PE!" Ruth wailed.

"Anyway, you already see this Ozzie show."

"It's The Wizard of Oz, not Ozzie and Harriet. And this one's a movie, it's famous!"

"Famous! Hnh! Everybody don't watch then no longer famous! Ozzie, Oz, Zorro, same thing."

"Well, Precious Auntie thinks I should watch it."

"What you mean?"

Ruth didn't know why she had said that. The words just popped out of her mouth. "Last night, remember?" She searched for an answer. "She had me write something that looked like a letter Z, and we didn't know what it meant?"

LuLing frowned, trying to recall.

"I think she wanted me to write o-z. We can ask her now, if you don't believe me." Ruth went to the refrigerator, climbed the step-stool, and brought down the sand tray.

"Precious Auntie," LuLing was already calling in Chinese, "are you there? What are you trying to say?"


Ruth's ability to fool her mother erodes some of her fears about her mother's authority, but at the same time the guilt she feels about her duplicity drives her further from her mother's reassuring clasp. The distance between them doesn't get better as they age. Even now, Ruth can't get Art's teenaged daughters (by a previous marriage) to show LuLing the sort of respect she expects (though they call her Waipo--an honorific for "Grandmother"--at Ruth's request, they think it's merely a nickname). The gap between mother and daughter--now decades old--seems unbridgeable, until Ruth finds a Chinese manuscript in her mother's hand while cleaning LuLing's house.

Up to this moment, Tan has built the plot slowly, through Ruth's quiet, inner musings. Ruth is an appealing character, and she--along with Tan's fluid, subtly beautiful writing--makes The Bonesetter's Daughter an engaging, insightful novel. But LuLing's Chinese manuscript, which Tan gives us in full, is the unexpected heart of the novel, and its effect on the text around it is breathtaking. Through the manuscript, which is a memoir she secretly wrote as a hedge against memory loss, LuLing is transformed from a stubborn, flat character speaking willfully broken English into a resoundingly articulate, complicated character with all the desires and worries of a fully alive person. She becomes, in short, a different person to us (and Ruth). Her story--of a childhood spent first with her Precious Aunt and then in an orphanage during the Japanese invasion that preceded World War Two and finally her immigration to America--is engaging in itself, but it's the jarring transformation that most impresses the reader.

"In an odd way," Tan writes in the novel's early pages, Ruth's "mother was the one who had taught her to become a book doctor. She had to make life better by revising it." But actually I think the lesson Ruth gains from her mother's memoir is that sometimes it's the impression of a subject and not the subject itself that has to be revised. It's a resoundingly writerly idea (appropriate for a careful, intelligent writer like Tan): Ruth learns to become a better reader of her mother (who, in Tan's estimate, "is how things begin"), and the world, she finds, simply no longer needs repressive revising. The obvious metaphorical extensions to ourselves as readers and 'revisers' in our own right don't need amplification, I suppose, but Tan deserves credit for suggesting them in such an intelligent, meticulously dramatic book. Click here to find any book!


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