Book Review The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Linda See
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane
Li-yan's Family a Look at the Akha Culture and the Process of Tea Growing
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Linda See weaves a story in the novel, that combines the customs of a remote Chinese minority living in a mountain town in Yunnan where tea growing is the center of their customs and their economy, the history of tea growing, romance, the mother-daughter relationship and the changes taking place in China.
In the beginning of the novel, evil spirits are kept out of the village by a Spirit Gate and an absolute obedience to traditional beliefs which insures that their way of life will be protected as it has been for generations. As the story progresses they are more aware of the revolution taking place in other parts of China. Li-yan the central character of the novel is a young girl when the story begins. Her mother, So-sa expects Li-yan to someday replace her as a healer and midwife, but Li--yan has shown an above average intelligence and longs for a life beyond the village. She will inherit an ancient tea grove that has been passed from mother to daughter. When a stranger and his son surprise the village by driving up the mountain from Hong Kong in a jeep inquiring about their tea, their lives are about to change.
An Unsuitable Marriage
Li-yan met San-pa at the tea market where her family sells the tea leaves they have picked. She longs for a pancake from one of the vendors at the market, but her family is too poor. When she meets San-pa, he is hiding and eating a pancake and offers Li-yan a bite which she accepts. When his theft of the pancake is discovered, both Li-yan and San-pa's family are in a state of shame that must be accounted for. Li-yan's attraction to San-pa continues into their teens although they have been born under signs that rule them unsuitable for marriage. When the teens reach the age of marriage, pre-marital sex is encouraged to find a suitable match. Li-yan and San-pa find they are sexually compatible and San-pa asks for them to marry, but Li-yan's family refuses. San-pa leaves the mountain to find work with the promise to return and marry Li-yan, but by then Li-yan finds that she is pregnant. Any child born out of wedlock must be killed or evil spirits will enter the village, so Li-yan has the baby in secret. Her daughter is perfect and Li-yan experiences the joy of motherhood but obediently agrees to abandon her daughter near an orphanage. She and her mother place a tea cake inside her blanket, so that her daughter will always know where she came from.
The Mother Daughter Relationship American and Chinese
Li-yan returns to her village despondent about her secret daughter but immerses herself in learning about teas and their values from the stranger and a well known tea master. She misses her opportunity to take an important test that would have allowed her to go to university. San-pa reappears and marries Li-yan telling her that he will help get their daughter back. Despite Li-yans and her family's doubts about the marriage, they marry, but their daughter has been adopted by an American family. The marriage is a disaster and ends in an unusual way.
Meanwhile, the story shifts to Haley, as her American Family has named her, and her life in America. The mid-section of the book explores the difficulties of the adoption process and the identity problems that some Chinese-American children face because they look different from their families and classmates. Hayley's American mother loves and cares for her and encourages her to explore Chinese culture.
While Li-yan always longs to find her daughter, in America, Hayley's mother always worries that she is raising Hayley the right way.
The author uses a great device to have Hayley write an essay on the history of tea and the Boston Tea Party for a school project which is a good way to incorporate the history of tea and its importance to the world into the novel.
Finding a Suitable Ending
The author Linda See is a Chinese American, and Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is well crafted and interesting. As most writers know, writing a suitable ending is one of the most difficult parts of the writing process. While the novel is a real page turner and is very well written, I found the ending a bit overdone with all conflicts resolved, but if as a reader you prefer happy endings, you will have another reason to love this novel. Linda's other novels include, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, China Dolls and the award winning On Gold Mountain.
For pictures of tea cakes, tea cake knives to shave tea leaves from the cake and the properties of Pu-erh tea for healing, may I suggest the website, enjoytea.com