Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Anya's War: book review and summary

Anya's War was not what I expected. I knew it was about a Jewish family around the time of World War II--but this family moved to Shanghai, China, where they could live freely as Jews. And in China, the coming war is presented from a different perspective. The main threat comes not from the Nazis, but from the Japanese.

Even so, the tension that comes up most often in the narrative (other than family squabbles) is not from the Japanese military invasions, but rather the obvious and occasionally awkward contrast between Jewish and Chinese culture. Both are painted as fairly superstitious, rule-based ways of life, but the rules for each are very different. Anya doesn't seem to have a very firm grasp of the religion she practices, and breaks her Jewish rules many times over the few days chronicled in the book. And occasionally, she will wish that she had paid more attention to Li Mei's Taoist charms and rituals, in the off chance that they might actually work.

In the beginning of Anya's War, we get a rough sketch of Anya's life in Shanghai, her friends, activities, and family relationships. Anya doesn't want to be an opera star. Most of us don't have to worry about that, but Anya does. Her mother was an opera star and assumes that her daughter will be as well. Anya writes about her long-standing desire to tell her mother the truth about her future dreams and her obsession with Amelia Earhart's disappearance in her journal which she calls "The Book of Moons."

But everything starts unraveling one day when she is rushing home to Li Mei (the family's cook) with goods from the market. She crashes her bike, the meat and produce are spoiled in the gutter, and she discovers that a baby girl has been dumped in the tall grass near her house. What should she do? She can't just leave the baby there to die, and she knew her mother would be very angry if she took a baby out of the gutter and brought it into the house. But Anya shows that she is beginning to mature as she decides over and over again that a baby's life is more important than her own hunger or comfort and that a baby's life is worth standing up for--to Li Mei, and if need be, her parents. But Li Mei recognizes that the baby is from a wealthy upper-class family, and decides to take the baby to her own mother in another town.

The one night that the baby, named Kisa, stays in their house, is the night before the Sabbath. Anya's family always has a big celebration dinner the evening before the Sabbath and for this particular dinner, Mr. Rosen invites a Jewish father and son that had just moved to Shanghai from Italy. Anya finds the son (who is her own age) extremely kind and attractive and feels only a little guilt about the fact that the night before, she was swooning over her classmate, Bobby Sassoon.

Anya and her little brother Georgi try to follow Li Mei when she takes Kisa away to her mother. But they get stuck in an area of town where some damaged Chinese planes accidentally drop a bomb! There are wounded people everywhere, and Anya has to help with the Red Cross while they look at Georgi's broken arm. Anya's mother is deeply affected by this crisis in the city and her concern for her children. She had been distant and cold to her family for a while after leaving her home and her occupation to come to Shanghai, but now her heart is bare again and she loves her children and her husband like before. After the family returns from the hospital, Bobby Sassoon is found waiting outside their house. He complains that he's been waiting over an hour and delivers an invitation to his birthday bowling party. With another hint of maturity, Anya realizes that Bobby is selfish and cares nothing about other people. Being handsome and popular doesn't make someone kind.

The narrative is strong, and the tensions in the book constantly propel the reader forward to the end. But there are some weaknesses in the book too. For one thing, there is relatively little character development. Anya and her mother both change a small amount, and there is an absolutely beautiful passage when Mr. Rosen is talking about loving and caring for his wife. But on the whole, all these different events come and go, and the relative effect on the characters is surprisingly minimal.

Another weakness in the book is the title. I honestly don't know what it refers to. In the story, World War II has not officially started, and though the growing tension and persecution was the main reason they moved, it is not clear that the title refers to that. I thought for a while that the issue of the Chinese "throwing out" their baby girls might be something that Anya herself would "wage war" against, but this is not the case either. She cares for the one baby girl, but doesn't seem to think about starting any kind of campaign to save the lives of Chinese babies. When the bombs went off, I thought that it could be the start of fighting or of some war, but the bombs turned out to be an accident when transporting unstable Chinese bombers to a safer location. It may seem picky, but I do think that the book as a whole would be a lot stronger if it had a title that clearly connected with the story. Without a clear connection between the title and the story, I have a very hard time discerning what is the main point of this story.

But even without a "main" point, reading this book could be fruitful. The book is based off of the author's (Andrea Alban) own experience, and provides a truly unique view of some Jews' experience in the late 1930s and early 1940s. I certainly learned a lot about Jewish and Chinese culture! I would say that you should approach this book as something light, interesting, and slightly educational, but don't expect it to be a page-turning thriller or a life-changing drama.

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