I picked up The Woman Warrior (1976) by Maxine Hong Kingston because it was on my list of 50 Books Every Woman Should Read Before She Turns 40 and it looked relatively short. I thought it would be good to read while on my backpacking trip. Unfortunately, this book was a little hard to follow at times, so reading on my phone, in my tent, wasn’t the best option. I also discovered that even when my phone is on airplane mode, it apparently knows when my Kindle books need to be returned to the library. So I lost my copy in the middle of the woods. Fortunately, my actual Kindle is not as smart. Anyway, once I got home, I was eventually able to check out The Woman Warrior again. I started over, and this time I was able to finish it.
The Woman Warrior was interesting in parts, confusing in parts, and deeply disturbing in parts. I generally like to be firmly grounded in details and explanations when I read, so I often found this book challenging because it felt vague. Kingston was born in Stockton California to her parents who had moved to the United States from China. Her book is a mix of stories that her mother told her growing up, with her own experiences.
The book begins with a haunting story of Kingston’s aunt, her father’s sister. Apparently, when the famine came and all the males sailed away to make money, Kingston’s aunt became pregnant–much later than would have been possible if her husband were the father. The town, incensed by this transgression, raids the family home, destroying and taking everything within. In shame and despair, Kingston’s aunt kills herself and her baby in the well. Kingston’s mother told her this story as a warning to show what happens to women who do not follow the rules, and tells her that no one ever speaks her aunt’s name anymore. But Kingston has pity for the poor woman. Her aunt was almost certainly raped by someone she knew, someone she could not say no to, someone who was likely in that mob who attacked her home. It’s horrifying to think about.
The second chapter is another story Kingston learned from her parents. This one is about a woman who leaves her family and goes up into the mountains where she is trained as an incredible warrior. She comes back many years later and defends her family from vicious and greedy leaders who have taken over. Kingston wishes she could be this kind of warrior and compares her own life to this wonder woman.
Subsequent chapters describe how Kingston’s mother, Brave Orchid studied and became a doctor in China. There is also a chapter when Brave Orchid’s sister, Moon Orchid, finally comes to the United States from Hong Kong. Moon Orchid’s husband has been supporting her in China but never asked for her to join him. Now he is remarried and has a new family of his own.
My overwhelming emotion while reading this book was feeling disturbed. I was uncomfortable because I couldn’t always tell what was true and what wasn’t. The incredible misogyny and violence against women throughout the book was also very disturbing. Even the story at the end where Kingston is cruel to a young girl because she reminds her too much of herself was very disturbing. Writing this review, and reminding myself of everything in the book has me disturbed all over again. I think it’s good to read things you normally wouldn’t and to get out of your comfort zone. However, even with that in mind, I would have a hard time recommending this book.
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