Friday, June 26, 2020

That Which Survives

Janie Chang’s latest novel discusses many important topics—some familiar, some less so. One of the reasons I wanted to interview the author, in fact, was precisely because it approaches well-known territory from a new and interesting angle. On the surface, The Library of Legends is a book about war: the Japanese occupation of China in the years leading up to World War II, in particular. Beneath the surface, though, it touches on a much broader range of issues both personal and political.

The basic premise is simple. A university in Nanjing decides to evacuate its students to protect them from the advancing Japanese army. In their baggage, each of them carries a single volume of an ancient encyclopedia. Their assignment is to convey their individual volume to its destination, a thousand miles to the west—but also to read it along the way and master its contents. Because the encyclopedia encapsulates the folklore of their nation: its heritage.

On this foundation, Janie Chang deftly weaves together themes of friendship and treachery, a murder and an arrest, a love story spanning centuries, the bonds of mother and daughter, even the involvement of spiritual forces. It sounds like it couldn’t work, yet it does.

But most of all, this is a novel about literature and legends—about books, what their survival mean to us as individuals and as cultures. In the midst of today’s pandemic and unrest, which can seem so overwhelming, it is worth remembering that ours is not the first generation to face such crises, nor—barring some unimaginable catastrophe—will we be the last. So let us protect our own Library of Legends, the essence of our culture, for those future generations.

As ever, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

Perhaps in anticipation of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the armistice, or just the reality that the last survivors will not be with us much longer, World War II has dominated the genre of historical fiction for some time. But two years before Hitler’s aggression against Poland set off the conflagration in Europe, imperial Japan occupied China, capturing Shanghai and Nanjing before launching bombing forays westward.

In The Library of Legends, Janie Chang draws on family stories and ancient legends to weave a fact-based yet mystical tale about this period in China’s long history. The novel focuses on a group of university students evacuated from Nanjing as the Japanese army approaches. Eager to defend their cultural heritage, the students embrace the task assigned to them: safeguarding an encyclopedia of lore compiled during the early Ming dynasty five hundred years before.

Hu Lian, a scholarship recipient from a single-parent family, encounters Liu Shaoming and his enigmatic former servant, Sparrow Chen, just as the students are starting on their long and difficult journey west. Friendship, even romance, blossoms between Lian and Shao—a love she does not trust because he comes from a background far wealthier than her own. But after a communist student agitator is murdered and suspicion falls on another of Lian’s friends, it is Shao and Sparrow who support Lian as she leaves the convoy to search for her mother. Only on the road east does Lian realize that the volume of the Legends entrusted to her includes a tale that may illuminate not only the elusive connection between her traveling companions but the destiny of China itself.

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