Amy Tan writes about a certain category of Americans: immigrants and refugees from the generations of the World Wars, focusing on the dynamics of the relationship between a traumatized parent and their child.
A parent-child bond created with this pattern can be tremendously suffocating for the child. The child is often called upon to help the parent continue to survive. Because the past is so overwhelmingly dark, the parent may see the child as the only “good thing” in their life, saddling the child with the weight of enormous obligation.
Amy Tan focuses on the population who, like her parents, came from China, particularly those who moved from indigenous life in their Chinese villages to the modernity of cities, first in China and then in the United States.
Many of the themes in her novels are universal but some are themes specific to the post-war America that the immigrants and refugees of that time found themselves in.
Overall, Tan covers the issue of trauma and its lasting, detrimental effects on the human psyche, almost obsessively as it relates to mothers and daughters. She tells the same story over and over with different versions and points of view, different histories and past lives.
She captures the confusion and grief in the adults, while also exploring the difficulty the children encounter as they attempt to survive their own traumatized parents.
The Bonesetter’s Daughter is an increasingly sad and traumatic tale unfolding backwards to the main character, Ruth, the daughter of LuLing, the victim of crimes and travesties in a world she, Ruth, can never know. That world is gone by the time she learns about it.
This is a strange truth in the story of many Americans: what was left behind by their ancestors remains with them after they immigrate as ghosts and pervasive longing. At the same time, what is longed for and grieved is no longer physically there for the children and descendants to return to, in order to better understand that loss. Often, all that remains real of their ancestors’ past are the loss and the memories. But the memories can become stories and the stories can ultimately bring healing.
Tan herself has been haunted all her life by a past she does not fully know or understand. She allows her mother’s memories to turn into stories called historical fiction that flow through her as homage and solace. Along with pervasive grief and longing emerges profound beauty.
Ruth is a modern woman living in San Francisco. She was raised by her mother, LuLing, who remains hopelessly caught in the past. Ruth both loves and resents her mother whose constant threat to kill herself, and even failed attempt, feels manipulative while at the same time hopelessly desperate. Though Ruth’s mother drives her crazy, she feels defensive of her mother when people don’t treat her with respect and yet she finds it hard to maintain a sense of respect herself. Ruth feels trapped and afraid of what her mother might do. Her emotional well-being is tethered to this unpredictable and unstable person and has been all her life.
As her mother begins to show signs of Alzheimer’s disease, Ruth decides to finally read the story of her life she has written for Ruth years earlier, when she felt her memory begin to slip.
Ruth is, ironically, a ghost writer, writing stories for other people. Her own story is eclipsed by her mother’s untold story. The secret mystery and unknown take up space Ruth can’t even imagine is there until the closet doors are opened and she finally understands who her mother is.
The world Tan creates in the China of LuLing’s youth in The Bonesetter’s Daughter is rich and compelling. Those were my favorite scenes in the book. Everything in these sections exists within a context. The tragedy of the immigrant is that they lose their context. Their present exists in a new context and if they have moved over trauma or had to flee, this new context does not quite make sense. Because it does not make sense to them, they often do not make sense to others. Such was the case with Ruth and her mother. Growing up her mother seemed crazy, talking to ghosts Ruth didn’t know, talking about experiences Ruth was not familiar with, carrying superstitions and beliefs from a time gone by. With the unfolding of the story which is their history, LuLing settles more comfortably into place in Ruth’s own psyche. Ruth can now hold her mother in her context and her story’s particular place in history.
LuLing was born in 1916, her family lived in a village called “Immortal Heart,” outside of Peking (Beijing). Once there was a revered pine tree at the center of Immortal Heart. But it is no longer there.
LuLing’s family was wealthy from making inksticks out of soot. Their house stretched over a ravine and behind it, the steep incline of a mountain moved closer to the house from erosion. There were many stories of what was in the deep ravine below them including the bodies of those who had jumped, taking their own lives out of shame. LuLing lived in a time and culture where one could bring shame to their family. And this shame was often a fate worse than death.
LuLing was also raised in a time where women had no rights and only gained status by the men they were associated with. This lack of agency encouraged crimes against women resulting in widespread fall out in families for generations that wreaks havoc on everyone’s sense of well-being. In her written story LuLing tells of her family, the Liu clan:
“The Liu clan had lived in Immortal Heart for six centuries. For that amount of time, the sons had been inkstick makers who sold their goods to travelers. They had lived in the same courtyard house that had added rooms, and later wings, when one mother four hundred years ago gave birth to eight sons, one a year. The family home grew from a simple three-pillar house to a compound with wings stretching five-pillars each. In later generations, the number of sons was less, and the extra rooms became run-down and were rented to squabbling tenants”(155).
The book slowly exposes layer upon layer of secrets, ancestors and ghosts of the past. Time may erase the physical but the etheric remains, including the bones of the famous Peking man dug out of one of the caves in their local mountain. The bones of the ancestors are much more ancient than they had previously believed.
LuLing is raised by her “Precious Auntie” in a separate wing of the large house. Precious Auntie bears scars of trauma that LuLing does not understand. There is an idyllic nature to her youth living with Precious Auntie who is gifted at calligraphy and teaches the art to young LuLing. Even though Precious Auntie is missing half of her face, there is still safety and beauty. Precious Auntie cares for LuLing and teaches her morals and values through her many stories.
“I didn’t think she was ugly, not in the way others in our family did. “Ai-ya, seeing her, even a demon would leap out of his skin,” I once heard Mother remark. When I was small, I liked to take my fingers around Precious Auntie’s mouth. It was a puzzle. Half was bumpy, half was smooth and melted closed. The inside of her right cheek was stiff as leather, the left was moist and soft. Where the gums had burned, the teeth had fallen out. And her tongue was like a parched root. She could not taste the pleasure of life: salty and bitter, sour and sharp, spicy, sweet, and fat.
No one understood Precious Auntie’s kind of talk, so I had to say aloud what these meant. Not everything, though, not our secret stories. She often told me about her father, the Famous Bonesetter from the Mouth of the Mountain, about the cave where they found the dragon bones, how the bones are divine and could cure any pain, except a grieving heart”(3).
Precious Auntie cannot speak with her voice, so they speak in sign language and through writing. Every morning they tend to their altars and their ancestors. During the days they work in the family’s inkstick factory which is in their house. The women now work there alone. The men have moved to the city to sell the ink in their prestigious store. Precious Auntie’s refined calligraphy gives their product an extra special quality.
Eventually, by reading LuLing’s powerful autobiography, Ruth learns that Precious Auntie is her biological grandmother and that her mother, LuLing did not know that Precious Auntie was her mother until after Precious Auntie killed herself and her body was thrown into the ravine below the house.
Tan’s own mother witnessed her mother taking her own life. The truth of Tan’s mother’s story and her grandmother’s story have been revealed to her slowly over time, each new story setting off a new book, each revealed detail opening a new door in her psyche to release and transform the pain in the memory.
The Bonesetter’s Daughter is an elegant story of survival and love, and the survival of love in the heart immortal.
And much of it focuses on writing: the writing on the famous Oracle Bones from the Shang Dynasty also found in the mountain, the writing that Precious Auntie does, the writing that LuLing does to tell her stories before she forgets, the writing that Ruth does and will go on to do after the book ends, now that she is free to write her own story.
Amy Tan is a Nasty Woman Writer.
© Theresa C. Dintino 2023
Tan, Amy. The Bonesetter’s Daughter. G.P Putnam’s Sons. 2001.