Book Review: Our Lady of Kaifeng Volume 2: Courtyard of the Happy Way

I finished reading part two of Our Lady of Kaifeng. These roses are beautiful, but Marah did not particularly enjoy flowers because she was allergic to pollen.
I finished reading part two of Our Lady of Kaifeng. These roses are beautiful and remind me of the garden Commandant Izu wanted Marah to plant, but Marah did not particularly enjoy flowers because she was allergic to pollen.

Our Lady of Kaifeng Volume 2: Courtyard of the Happy Way, is a metaphor of sorts. Marah Fallowfield is the heroine and a true Libertarian of this story.  Sometimes I understand where she is coming from, but other times her motivations do not resonate with me. The wonderful part about good novels is I like characters that are free to be who they are, and so many stories do not explore this. Some novels are written to a certain formula, and I enjoy stories that stray from this.

Marah, her daughter Sybil, and about 1500 other American and British expatriates living in the Shandong Province of China were mandated to stay in a Japanese concentration camp for the duration of the war, but in some ways, this camp is symbolic of how everyone is stuck in a situation where they cannot truly be free. Do we have complete liberty to do anything we truly want in life? Is our life ruled by the dollar sign, or do we truly pursue the things that bring us joy in life? Marah does not worry about how much money she makes, or her social status. Her motivations are driven by her adoration for Ted Sesame, so follows him to China to teach and live near him.

I am not a true blue Libertarian and admit I still am a liberal Democrat in my perspective on life. My ideas about equality and social justice are something I hold very near and dear, but over time, I have grown to understand the Libertarian perspective a bit more. They believe in complete freedom of choice, but I just wonder if this is realistic. Is society willing to allow everyone that much freedom? It sounds nice, and it is something to consider giving the direction things are going. It is a lofty ideal to think people will get behind the Libertarian school of thinking, but one that I do not see coming to complete fruition. Maybe I am completely wrong here, but I think a major shift in American political thinking would have to take place before these ideas were more widely accepted.

Will people ever get behind the Libertarian concept of complete personal freedom and liberty? When so much of our identity is tied to party politics and group identity, the idea of just being an American who loves freedom can be a bit scary. It means a lot o the things you read and were told for years are not always true, and sometimes quite divisive. I know I am tired of the vitriol and each side calling each other a truckload of names. Maybe I am becoming a bit campy and nostalgic, but it would be preferable if Americans could band together in the sake of unity and common ideals. However, it is up to the reader to decide what is the way forward, especially given the current environment of carnival elections.

Marah might give us a few ideas about how we can find our way out of the ideological wilderness, but we would have to be willing to change our minds about certain philosophical concepts.  On an honest note, I am more invested in veganism than American political elections at the moment, and I am voting perhaps for an independent, trying to stay away from the divisive political debates that rule the day. Everything is politicized as of late, even music festivals, and I find myself yearning for a time when things were a bit more simple. I guess I am weary of politics, but this is just how I see it. Yes, I understand why some people just wanted to live in a garden or enjoy the flowers, even Commandant Izu. I kind of understand the way he thinks, sometimes. Not when it comes to how he dealt with Luna, but otherwise he seems like a just and fair man. I do not admire him, but I do not find him perplexing, either.

Marah pursues the Libertarian concept of personal freedom with all of her being. She even risks her own comfort and safety to pursue her philosophy, but would everyone want to do this? Are you less of a noble person if you prefer a simple and comfortable life? Not in my book, but what I do admire about Marah is that she is always true to her principles, and you always know where you stand with her.

When it comes to the romantic front, I always wonder about why we like he people we do. Why does Marah like Sesame? In the first novel I found him intriguing, yet mildly annoying. In this novel, I find him sinister in a conniving sort of way. He is also a bit stereotypical, despite all his epistemic ideals. Spoiler alert: he marries a woman with no real opinions and who likes to do his laundry. Oh yay, guess he could never handle someone disagreeing with him on a daily basis. Sarah and Abe’s marriage was a lot more interesting, to be honest. I can imagine his world would be thrown into a vortex when a three-year-old son accidentally spills ketchup on his pristine white shirt. I get that we all like certain people who might be flawed, but what I do admire about Marah is she continues to love Sesame, even though this love is one-sided. This does not diminish her devotion to him, and it is a subject few novels breach. I wish more people would talk about this, and not dismiss unrequited love because it is very real, and it is just as valid as head over heals reciprocal love. Actually, perhaps it is even more of a driving force because Marah follows Sesame to China, and I doubt some women who were in mutual romantic love with him would have done this. The type of woman who wants to be taken care of and to go shopping with her husband’s credit card certainly would not have. Bella might do Sesame’s laundry every day, but even her adoration for him had its limits. Would she had been smitten by the male version of Bertha Higgenbottom, even if there was a pot of gold under the pail of turnips she asked Marah to pass her in the kitchen? I am not saying I would go to the extremes that Marah traverses, but it is worth pointing out at least this novel is acknowledging these characters do exist, and that they are strong and real people.

Who has the best attitude when it comes to romantic love in this story? Perhaps it is Aria, and following her advice might not result in a happy and successful marriage, even though she had her hand in disrupting a few, but at least she was not pinning all her hopes on one man. She was playing the field as many men do and making no apologies for it. She might be an extraneous character in the story, but she is a very important one. Live life like Aria and at least you can say you have no regrets. I am not saying people should be homewreckers, but maybe we would all be happier if we said what we thought a bit more often, and pursued the things we actually cared about.

Life in the concentration camp at Wei-hsien was bleak, even if the British and American expatriates residing within fared somewhat better than others during the war. What remains to be said is in the not so distance past people had to deal with real scarcity, and in our world of modern technology and food security makes life in current day America look like a luxury. This part of the novel can be hard to read, it is the reality of history. I think it also makes us more appreciative of the things we have at the moment.

So this novel to me crystallizes why people immigrate to America in the first place. Recently I have heard some people say they have no wish to visit America or live here, and whereas I can understand this view, I also must say I love many things about our country. We are a land where the pursuit of happiness is a thing, and much is still possible today in our world, even though it is harder to start a business, or pursue your dreams than it once was. But I still deeply believe in the American way. I know all of us have different ways of expressing this, but this is why I can admire the character Marah in her pursuit of happiness and doing what she thinks is best. Happiness is not a guarantee, but perhaps we should discuss a bit more why we should treasure and value it. This novel has many core American values, and I believe anyone who believes in freedom of speech and the pursuit of happiness should read it. I am not sure why, but I had a lot of stirring of patriotism when reading this story, even though it was set far away in China.

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