Since I am forever on the search for historical fiction that is not about World War II, I was thrilled to come across The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See. Not only is it not set during WWII, but it set during my lifetime, which initially made me hesitant to put it under the historical fiction label. But because of the story it tells, and the way it is told, that label seems both appropriate and fitting.
The Situation: Li-yan grew up in a remote Chinese mountain village among the Akha people. She did not grow up wealthy or well-connected, and her culture prized sons above daughters, sees the birth of twins as a tragedy that requires a thorough and severe cleansing ritual, and what little money they make during the year relies heavily on how much tea they can pick and process to be sold. As the only daughter in her family, Li-yan will inherit the private tea grove that has been passed down the female line in her family. It is so private that no man is allowed to enter it, for it is believed that if he does he will die. The tea made from the trees in this grove is thought to be the best in the world, and not just by Li-yan and her mother. If Li-yan follows her culture's traditions, as well as her mother's footsteps, she will grow up to be village's next mid-wife and healer. But Li-yan wants more for her life, especially as she learns that the world outside of her small village is changing rapidly.
The Problem: The trouble starts when Li-yan falls for a boy her parents do not approve of. San-pa is known to be lazy and a troublemaker, but Li-yan insists she loves him and wants to marry no one else. When San-pa leaves the small village to work hard so he can return and gain Li-yan's parents' approval, she finds that she is pregnant with his child. A child born out of wedlock is considered a human reject that must be killed immediately after birth, but instead of following the tradition she grew up with, Li-yan manages to have her baby dropped off at an orphanage, where the little girl is eventually adopted by an American couple. It is an action that will bring Li-yan much relief and sorrow, as she will spend much of her energy both grieving over the daughter she lost, as well looking for her in the face in every Chinese girl she sees. Both women must move forward with their lives, one wondering about the daughter she gave up, and another wondering about the mother who would give her away, and if there is any way to find her.
Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel that is actually set in the not at all distant past. Starting in 1988 and going all the way to 2016, the story begins with Li-yan's childhood and continues until she is an adult living in California, far away from her small mountain village in China. She will come a long way from her incredibly humble beginnings as an apprentice mid-wife to her mother. Possibly the one thing that will always have a presence in every chapter of her life is tea. Her family picked it and sorted the leaves as their primary source of income. And after attending a trade school, she will then be accepted into programs that will help her build upon the knowledge she already has, allowing her to eventually open her own tea shop and join the modern world outside of her village. As Li-yan gains more education, and sees more of the outside world, it becomes increasingly difficult for her to reconcile the Akha beliefs and traditions she grew up with, and what she observes in the world outside of her village. The book also delves into China's history with communism, the one-child-policy, and of course, the tea trade. And while the majority of the book is told in first-person through Li-yan, there are small sections that include information about Haley, the daughter that Li-yan gave up. Whether through letters, school assignments, or group therapy transcripts, little bits of information about Haley's life are given to the reader, which show a young girl struggling with her identity as a Chinese girl with white adoptive parents.
My Verdict: This is an incredible story and a spectacular way to talk about the history of the tea trade and industry in China. Through Li-yan, the reader learns a great deal about tea: how and when it is picked, sorted, processed, packaged, sold, and even brewed, down to the best type of water to use when doing so. For the most part, the characters are fully developed and become real people dealing with issues most anyone can relate to, such as family expectations and obligations, and the desire to protect what is precious from those who wish to possess it for their own profit. My only issue with this book is its pacing. Sometimes the story moves at a steady pace, and at other times it moves quickly, even through settings or scenarios that would seem important to overall story development, but instead end up coming across as more of a means to an end, if that makes any sense. I also wish more time was spent learning about Haley and what her life is like with her adoptive parents in California. Otherwise, this is a great book that I still believe would be suitable for fans of historical fiction, despite it taking place during the late 20th/early 21st centuries.
Favorite Moment: When Li-yan finally realizes the truth about the man she married.
Favorite Character: Li-yan's mother, or A-ma, is a proud and often stubborn woman, but she is also respected and has done much to earn that respect throughout her community. Like many mothers, she knows more than she lets on, causing Li-yan to have revelations later in her life about events that happened decades before. She may be committed to her culture's beliefs and traditions, but her commitment to her daughter will ultimately come first.
Recommended Reading: Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran is a different kind of story that also deals with the adoption of an immigrant child by parents that do not share his ethnic background.