Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Shen of the Sea

It's interesting that all of the Newbery winners from the 1920's are set in exotic locations, isn't it? And it's a little strange that Shen of the Sea, by Arthur Bowie Chrisman, won the Newbery just a year after Tales from Silver Lands (a collection of South American stories) did. Were ethnic (or faux ethnic) folk tales really popular in the 20's, or were they seen as new and exciting? Maybe all the other children's books published in 1925 seemed like the same old stuff to Newbery committee?

I can't help wondering why it won, you see, because I really didn't like Shen of the Sea at all. And by the way, what were those teachers and librarians in Allen County smoking, to rank Shen at 48 out of 88? It's better than Hitty, Her First Hundred Years? Better than Criss Cross and Miracles on Maple Hill? Better than The Graveyard Book??!!

No way. I put it down in the 80's in my personal rating, close to Tales from Silvers Lands and The White Stag, if not quite as terrible as Amos Fortune or Daniel Boone.

Some passages in Shen of the Sea were enjoyable for the images they engendered, or for their poetry. Here's a short one that I liked, from the story that gave its title to the book:
And the water demons danced in the dew. Jubilant were they, flinging their toes high, spattering dew drops upon the palace roof, and singing the terrible song of the ocean (p. 34).
And here's a passage I didn't like, describing the perfect girl. It starts out well enough (and "the depraved and shameless" dances of today made me laugh), but then you see the importance of not outshining men:
If she was not so tall, she seemed equally strong and daring. She played ball with the prince. She climbed trees and rode donkeys. She could place her arrow in the target's eye, and she could swim where few would venture. More, the princess could broider, and sew, and dance most gracefully - not in the depraved and shameless manner of today; she danced the olden dances. And Chai Mi was a discreet maiden. She took good care not to excel Prince Tou Meng. If the prince's arrow struck the second ring, then her arrow came no inch closer to the mark. When swimming, the prince always won his races by the slightest margin (p. 103).
I can't help thinking that this is Chrisman's perfect girl. Though maybe that's Radiant Blossom, whose face "was shaped like a seed of the melon", whose eyebrows "were like the leaf of the willow", whose "eyes resembled the heart of an apricot" and whose feet "were three-inch golden lilies. And when she walked, she swayed as a poplar sways in summer zephyrs" (p. 112). Too bad that dishonest court painter portrays her as "a gruesome crone, a witch, a slattern" (p. 116), but this did save her from being one of the emperor's "Many Wives" (that's the name of this story). It's amazing Radiant Blossom was able to escape when the emperor sent her to marry Wolf Heart, the Barbarian, though, with the bound feet and unsteady walk.

Anyway, I didn't find the tales particularly "amusing and appealing in themselves", as promised on the dust jacket, and even without reading Amanda's review, I would be suspicious about the dustjacket's further claim that "hidden beneath their surface is the wise and practical philosophy that has influenced Chinese life for thousands of years".

The cutesy names (like Ah Mee and Ah Fun) annoyed me, and the sexism annoyed me, and it's all just sanctimonious and pretentious somehow, without the disturbing and yet compelling qualities in real folk tales (or even Tales from Silver Lands). Shen of the Sea made Smoky the Cowhorse (which won the following year) seem positively genuine - and much less annoying - in comparison.

1 comment:

Amanda (the librarian) said...

I agree with you about the Allen County rankings. I can only think that this one scored high because the individual tales are short, easy to read, and often funny. I'd rank it pretty near the bottom of the Newbery winners I've read so far.