Donna Jo Napoli is a linguistics professor at Swarthmore College and an author of children’s books. She used to have a cat named Taxi, for the sheer joy of calling the cat and watching the neighbors make faces. She takes modern dance and yoga classes for fun, and bakes bread. She has also coauthored a scholarly paper on frogs. I’ve reviewed a couple of her books before — here and here — and while they aren’t always my favorite, I seem to keep coming back for more.
The Cinderella story is a common one throughout many cultures, and Ms. Napoli has chosen to set her variant of the tale in Ming-Dynasty China. Xing Xing’s mother dies when she is very small, and her father remarries, to a woman with a daughter close to Ping’s age. The stepmother (called Stepmother) has decided to bind her daughter (Wei Ping)’s feet, in order that she will be able to attract a man of a much higher social status. And of course, once the father dies, Stepmother treats Xing Xing as if she’s the lowest kind of servant, even so far as to sending her off to try to sell green dates as some sort of false miracle cure to raise money. One day, there is a fair in town, and Xing Xing finds some of her mother’s old clothing (including shoes) to wear into town . . .
As with most (if not all) of Ms. Napoli’s books, this is a short volume, barely two hundred pages. However, the story and the characters are, as usual, extraordinarily well-developed in such a short time period. Xing Xing’s father, who barely shows up, is shown to be a great father, albeit a bit ineffectual in reining in his second wife; Stepmother is, of course, cruel, but it is all with love for her daughter. There’s a secondary character, a doctor, who helps Xing Xing considerably, and whose presence I enjoyed for the short time he appears. The details — Xing Xing’s father’s pottery, a fish in a pond, the help that a neighbor gives them — are wonderful, and add crystal points of light to the narrative.
I’m not necessarily one to judge other cultures prematurely and I do understand some of the sociological reasoning behind foot-binding, but from all descriptions that I’ve read (including this one), it’s a painful, torturous practice that generally involves breaking, healing, and rebreaking the feet. There are a lot of places in which the process can go wrong, and it does — Wei Ping’s feet are infected more than once. There’s also an awful scene — straight out of original versions of the tale, I’ll mention — where Stepmother cuts off Wei Ping’s toe. Fortunately, we don’t see much of it on stage, but it still made me cringe. There’s also more cruelty to animals than I’m generally comfortable with. It is, as a matter of fact, a rather violent book, but a good deal of that is in keeping with the original story.
With this story, as per usual with Ms. Napoli’s books, I didn’t feel that I was reading the story for enjoyment so much as edification, and watching the author show off her linguistic and cultural knowledge. Although I do often read books for both edification and enjoyment (look for a review of George Eliot’s Middlemarch before too long), sometimes one overtakes the other and it nearly feels like a chore to read it. I can certainly appreciate her technical skill, but the book felt almost soulless to me. I suspect that other readers may have a different experience, and I will still recommend it highly, but while I could see the emotions intended in the text, they didn’t pull on me as much as I might have liked. 4/5 stars, mostly for achievement rather than enjoyment.