Review: Shen of the Sea by Arthur Bowie Chrisman, illustrated by Else Hasselriis. Winner of the 1926 Newbery Medal.
A long time ago in ancient China, there lived a sagacious old mandarin and his useless son. The father was famous throughout the neighborhood for his fresh bao, universally declared as the most heavenly bao found on earth (if you don’t know what bao is, please, consult Wikipedia). But one day, just after he’d rolled out the mixture for the dough, his worse-than-useless son threw the whole lot into the paper shredder (it was a mechanical paper shredder made of ceramic. The Chinese invented paper, so it’s only logical they’d have invented the shredder too). And then, without warning, a great dragon, the oo loong, crash-landed on the roof and set fire to the house. The family survived, but everything else—except for the paper shredder—was burnt to a crisp. By an odd coincidence, the shredder happened to have water in it too. The dragon’s breath set the water boiling and cooked the shredded dough inside…and that was how noodles were invented.
If you’ve survived reading the above paragraph, you should know that it’s representative of the kind of story found in Shen of the Sea (maybe not exactly. The parentheses are my own addition). With few exceptions, I found the tales to be dull, poorly written and confusing. It’s such a shame, not just because the Newbery sticker conveys a sense of quality, but because it fell so low of its potential. The subtitle of Shen is Chinese Stories for Children. So I expected an anthology of whimsical creation myths and the like. What you get instead is a hodgepodge of non-Chinese stories spiced with Oriental exoticism.
No book exists in a vacuum, and as background, I should mention that Chrisman, the author, had never been to China. He apparently spent some time studying Chinese history and befriended Chinese-American immigrants. But the stories aren’t really authentic folklore: the characters use forks and knives (in one story, they invent chopsticks as a safer, less violent eating utensil to replace scary forks), they drink milk and eat cheese.
But lack of authenticity isn’t the biggest problem. There’s an uncomfortable strand of exoticism throughout the book, as Chrisman piles on stereotypes and Oriental trappings. That, however, has been covered elsewhere. What I’m interested in are the universal standards by which all stories are judged: writing, character, plot—and Shen fails on every level.
Let’s say you’re reading a story that takes place in another country. Maybe it’s Cinderella, widely attributed to the French author Charles Perrault. The characters in the book live in France and are speaking French, but the book is published for an American audience, so the words are the page are actually English. When you’re reading, do you expect the characters to speak with a French accent? Of course not. You understand that they’re speaking their native language, so they’d be fluent. There might be a few Madames and Monsieurs scattered in for effect, but the writing should flow as smoothly as any story that takes place in America.
Chrisman ignores this basic rule by randomly inserting bits of Chinese grammar. He never explains what he’s doing, either, and I only knew because I have a basic understanding of Mandarin. At one point, for example, an old man walks around trying to sell something for “one cash.” In Chinese, the word for cash is synonymous with money, and it’s part of the term for currency. In English, it simply sounds incoherent, as if the characters in the book are incapable of speaking their native language. Going back to the French analogy, imagine how it would sound if the narrator in Cinderella kept talking about “the shoe of Cinderella” or “the dress golden of Cinderella”—two phrases that make perfect sense in French but sound stilted and odd in English. Chrisman uses Chinese grammar again and again, to the point where it feels like he’s trying to show off his bilingual skills (or at least, his command of random Chinese terms). Not only did it jar me out of the story, it made the narration torturous to read. I kept resisting the urge to correct the grammar with a red pen…and on top of that, Chrisman would sometimes do a one-eighty and throw in modern English terms like “willy-nilly.”
The opposite of Chrisman are authors like Nancy Farmer. Like Chrisman, Farmer writes about a culture that’s foreign to many Americans—Mozambique in A Girl Named Disaster, Zimbabwe in The Ear, the Eye and the Arm. She uses plenty of cultural terms but takes the time to explain them. And they never intrude on the writing, so the books remain completely readable.
If the writing didn’t attract me, I hoped for some compelling characters. What I got were cardboard cutouts. Most of them never change throughout the book—those that are selfish stayed selfish, those who were meek stayed meek. They simply relied on their natural-born talents or flaws, and they’re often rewarded for their stubbornness. A mischievous boy runs around destroying his neighbors’ property. By accident, he smears jam onto a wooden carving, a piece of paper lands on it, and voilà! he’s invented the printing press. In another story, a man named Contrary Chueh Chun spends his life doing the opposite of what people tell him. His actions nearly get him killed, until his wife (a pure plot device to keep him alive) tells him NOT to run away, and he does.
Folk tales might be tragic, funny, or over the top, but they’re not excused from the basics of storytelling. Chrisman’s book suffers from an excess of plot devices. In one story about the invention of china (as in the ceramic), a dragon comes roaring out of the sky breathing fire. His only role is to accidentally bake the princess’ mud pies and turn them into appropriate tableware. In another tale, water spirits called shen threaten to drown a city, and the king tricks them by trapping the spirits in a bottle. Years later, a servant drops the bottle and the enraged spirits escape. When the shen plan another major flood, the king somehow gets them to voluntarily enter the bottle again. It felt like such a cop-out—just imagine, for a moment, if the witch in Hansel and Gretel escaped the oven slightly singed, then agreed to enter the oven again to demonstrate the proper self-baking technique.
Hasselriis’ illustrations were the best part of Shen. They look authentic enough, like traditional Chinese paper cutouts, and sometimes brought the characters to life better than the words. There’s also one story that I found satisfying—it’s one of the few where a woman uses her mind to decide her own fate, and she does it at the expense of a greedy king.
But such moments were rare. At the end of the day, when the book isn’t well-written, when you don’t care about the characters, when the plot doesn’t hold together, what’s left?