The Distant Land of My Father
About the book:
Anna, the narrator of this riveting first novel, lives in a storybook world: exotic pre- World War II Shanghai, with handsome young parents, wealth, and comfort. Her father, the son of missionaries, leads a charmed and secretive life, though his greatest joy is sharing his beloved city with his only daughter. Yet when Anna and her mother flee Japanese-occupied Shanghai to return to California, he stays behind, believing his connections and a little bit of luck will keep him safe.
Through Anna’s memories and her father’s journals we learn of his fall from charismatic millionaire to tortured prisoner, in a story of betrayal and reconciliation that spans two continents. The Distant Land of My Father, a breathtaking and richly lyrical debut, unfolds to reveal an enduring family love through tragic circumstances.
About the author:
Bo Caldwell has published short stories in numerous literary magazines. Her nonfiction writing includes a long-running series of personal essays in the Washington Post Magazine. She is a former Stegner Fellow in creative writing at Stanford University, and now lives in Northern California with her husband, novelist Ron Hansen, and her two children.
Q. What kinds and what degrees of actual and imagined disloyalty, from the political to the personal, occur in the novel? What kinds and what degrees of actual and imagined betrayal? What does the author appear to be saying about disloyalty and betrayal, and about the possibilities of reconciliation and forgiveness?
Q. Anna says of her father, “I had a landmark of my own, a place I always started from to get wherever I was going, a reference point for everything I did.” (8) What are the advantages and disadvantages of making one person such a landmark in one’s life? What burdens might it place upon that other person, and what dangers might it pose for oneself?
Q. After Joseph’s kidnapping, Anna’s mother tells her, “Your father is somewhat unpredictable. . . . He has strong ideas and people don’t always agree with those ideas, and he does what he wants, whether people like it or not. And sometimes it gets him into trouble.” (48) What does get Joseph Schoene into trouble, and how? What are the consequences of his doing what he wants? To what extent is he irresponsible in not thinking through the impact of his actions?
Q. In what ways might the contrast between the street scenes during the Battle of Shanghai and the reception at the Cercle Sportif emphasize the perennial differences between the haves and the have-nots of this world? What other manifestations of this theme occur in the novel? What contemporary or historical parallels might there be with the attitude of the European and American businessmen and the wealthy Chinese in 1937 Shanghai?
Q. What notion and what actuality of home are cherished by each of the Schoenes and the other important characters? How might we explain the differences or attitude and perception among them and the consequences of those differences? How would you define home?
Q. Anna says of her father’s refusal to leave Shanghai, “There was too much money to be made, too much opportunity, to just walk away.” (133) What are the personal, social, political, and moral consequences of basing one’s decisions, values, and actions solely on business and money-making opportunities?
Q. “We were both so good at catering to him, at revolving around him,” Anna says of her and her mother’s relationship to Joseph. (203) What model of family life does Caldwell present? Is it a model with which you are familiar? Is it a model that seems widespread in the United States today?
Q. After Joseph’s “breezy” telegram arrives from Shanghai at the end of September 1945, Anna’s grandmother tells her: “Your father is a difficult man. I’m sure he has his good side, and I suspect his heart is sometimes in the right place. But his intentions never become actions . . . It’s not a question of love. It’s a question of who he is, and what he wants.” (216) Do these statements and the observations that follow constitute an accurate assessment of Joseph Schoene and his behavior? Is it, with him, never a question of love? To what extent is it true that “he has no vision . . . and always will be an opportunist”? (216)
Q. What specific capabilities make Genevieve “a master of adaptability” and self-transformation? (249) How would you describe Joseph Schoene’s skills at adapting? What adaptations and self-transformations does each undertake? What incidents show most dramatically or most convincingly the reasons, circumstances, and consequences-and the limitations-of their adaptive powers? How and why do others undergo transformations? With what results?
Q. “Anything is possible in these times. There is no limit to what is now possible,” says the Russian trustee, Nikolai Petrovich, in Ward Road Jail. (280) In addition to his most immediate reference, what are the possible implications of his statement in the world of the jail and the world of the second half of the twentieth century? What personal implications might the statement have for Joseph Schoene? What limits disappear within the time scope of the novel?
Q. What kinds of love occur in The Distant Land of My Father? Between or among whom? From what circumstances do these loves spring, what circumstances nourish some of them, and what circumstances jeopardize or destroy others?
Q. Two of the old Chinese cook Chu Shih’s sayings have later resonance in the novel: Hsin chong yu shei, shei chiu p’iaoliang and His hua hua chiehkuo, ai liu liu ch-êngyin. The first-”Whoever is in your heart is beautiful”-is repeated to Anna by her dying mother as the basis for forgiving her father. Joseph quotes the second-”Love and attention make all things grow”-as he works in the South Pasadena garden. How do these two Shanghai adages apply to each main character and the characters’ interrelationships? In what ways might they apply to the novel overall? What instances of unusual love, attention, beauty, and growth are there in the novel, and what instances of their opposites?
Q. Anna recalls that, listening to Dr. Pearson”s explanation of Joseph’s death, “I wanted causes and events, reasons why, a sense of order.” (350) To what extent might these three desires motivate all the characters? The author herself? All of us?
Q. What does Joseph Schoene’s final residence, its furnishings and appliances, the books it contains, and its “decorations” reveal about his life and his character?