I have loved reading Lisa See’s books, particularly Shanghai Girls, Dragon Bones and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, so I was particularly pleased to have the opportunity to read an advance copy of her latest, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, thanks to Scribner and NetGalley.
We meet Li-Yan when she is a girl living in a remote village in the mountains of Yunnan province. Life is hard for the families in the ethnic Akha minority as they harvest tea and follow routines and rituals that have been ingrained in their lives for generations. Li-Yan is the only daughter, living in a family compound with her parents and her three brothers and their wives, and she has an aptitude for learning that is fostered by her teacher.
Li-Yan falls in love with San-Pa, who leaves her to make a life for them outside the village. She learns she is pregnant while he is gone and gives birth to a baby girl (which tradition deems a “human reject”). Because she cannot bring herself to kill the baby, she wraps the baby in a blanket (tucking a tea cake alongside her) and walks for miles to a village where she abandons her beloved baby, hoping someone will care for her.
There is an incredible amount of history and detail as the story follows Li-yan’s effort as she grows up to enter the world beyond the gates of her village. It is an amazing journey with memorable characters and more than you will probably ever want to know about tea!
Meanwhile, her daughter is adopted by a loving family in the U.S. and is raised in a life that contrasts sharply with Li-Yan’s. An impressive amount of research was done by See, who grew up in a large Chinese-American family in Los Angeles. Themes of international adoptions, ethnic minorities in China (specifically the Akha people), and the history and cultural significance surrounding tea (farming, production and consumption) all contribute to the story.
As one might expect in a book by Lisa See, the main female characters are strong, clever women whose familial bonds overlay their experiences as individuals. It won’t be a surprise that Li-Yan’s desire to search for the daughter she gave up is recounted in chapters alternating with the story of Haley, the girl adopted by Americans who longs to learn about her roots and birth family.
As noted, there is more than I really wanted to know about tea, but it was an integral part of the story. I appreciate learning about Chinese history and culture in such an entertaining way, and my only critique is that the circumstances which make the resolution of the story feel so positive are (for me) bordering on “too good to be true,” as both Li-Yan and Haley are living ideal lives surrounded by perfect people and circumstances.
It’s a powerful story, well-researched and affecting on many levels. I loved the experience of reading it, but the ending reminded me that it was complete fiction – so four stars.
BTW, Lisa See will be at a Bookshop Santa Cruz event March 23, 2017.