My rating: ★★★★✫ 4 out of 5. I highly recommend it.
I read this book for our April’s date with my book club. It’s non fiction. It’s a book about five girls, and then specially three of them, who came to America to learn our ways, and went back to Japan to teach the West to the women of the East. Three friends who were very intertwined in the history of Japan’s changes with the Meiji dynasty, and their ambivalence and constant fight between embracing Western mentality and customs, versus maintaining their Japanese traditions.
The book has been so current to me. The story of this women happens to be in a sense, the story of us women, in the past and also in the present. I could see the struggles of the independent Ume, who at times was clearly a feminist, but I also have seen how her efforts were aimed at improving conditions that were inhuman. It also speaks to me as an immigrant. One becomes of the place where he grows up, or lives for so long, and coming back “home” was very difficult, specially for Ume, the youngest when she left to America.
It was fascinating to see these girls put Shakespeare plays in Japan, to host fetes and charity events and festivals, and at the same time, how they suffered as non married women, as wives to military men or men in the government with all the weight that carried. One of them, Sutematsu, reminded me of Abigail Adams in her time in England, when she was always criticized for her different non British ways. Sutematsu was not your ‘typical’ Japanese, she was a wife and mother, and companion to a dignitary, but she represented modern Japanese mentality, and thus the traditionalists scrutinized her continually. Shige was married to a naval general, and she had to suffer long absences while teaching at home and taking care of her always growing family. She had 6 or 7 children in total, so she worked hard. Ume was the ‘spinster’, the one who refused to marry in order to continue her plans for herself and her country. Ume was the most American of they three. She had to learn Japanese from scratch upon her return. Sutematsu and Ume went to one of the first universities for women in the States, the Vassar, and in Japan, they both and Ume found themselves void of each other company due to their busy lives, with scarcely another person who could hold interesting conversations with them in English.
They had times of reunion, as when they worked together and with Alice (daughter of one of their families from America who shared time and place with them in many occasions), and later on with Anne, daughter of a missionary who lived in Japan with them too.
When Ume came back to America, she also saw Hellen Keller, and in England she visited Florence Nightingale. The girls as young grown ups in Japan, also got to meet with president Grant, and they met with writers and poets such as Longfellow.
I’m glad I read this book. I got to know a bit more about those times through these women, and about the contradictions and nuisances of the Japanese, and a tiny bit of their history at a time when it merges with our own.
There’s an online discussion with the author I have not listen to yet (I plan to).