The author was born in Tokyo to Scottish missionaries. He spent his formative years in Japan then went back to study in Edinburgh. During the war, he was a prisoner in a Japanese camp where he served as an interpreter because of his understanding of the language and the culture. He began to write books after the war.
“The Ginger Tree” is the story of a young Scotswoman, brought up in a rigid Victorian milieu in Edinburgh in the 1900s, who marries a military attaché based in Peking. This is an arranged and loveless marriage, as was very often the case in those days. The restrictions and confinement of embassy life in Peking become quickly insufferable for her.The change of lifestyle, the discomfort and the strange customs of the new foreign land weigh on her so much that she becomes depressed and frustrated.
One day she meets a Japanese count and falls in love. Their love affair will change the course of her life. Being with child, she is rejected by her husband, her mother and British society. Since she doesn’t want to go back to Britain, she decides to flee to Japan where she tries to live as an independent woman. She is all alone in a country where she has no friends and cannot speak the language. Moreover, her lover will take their son away from her, adding to her unhappiness and suffering.
With time she will adapt to the new situation. As her understanding of the Japanese mentality grows, she comes to realise the count is guided by a rigid sense of duty, which is the most sacred thing in his life. For him therefore, his son must be brought up by a Japanese family. ( Let’s notice that the Japanese culture of the time was as conventional and rigid as the Victorian one).
Her resilience is admirable. She never stops fighting in the hope that her son will be restored to her. Her strength of character forces admiration.
Through her story, we learn many historical and cultural facts we are not so familiar with like the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900, the ceremony of the tea party by the Empress-dowager, the war in Manchuria between Russia and Japan, the death of Emperor Megi followed by the suicide by harakiri of general Nagi ( old discipline of the warrior code), Japan taking side for the French and the British during the 1st WW, the sinking of the Lusitania….
She lives through a tsunami and two earthquakes, the second one being a catastrophe for the country, and is impressed by the stoicism of the Japanese who instead of complaining put their efforts in reconstructing everything.
Then there is the rape of Nankin, Pearl Harbour and the 2nd WW which will put an end to her life in her beloved chosen country because of the hostility towards the British and the Americans.
At the end Mary sees herself similar to the ginger tree, an alien plant which has taken root in Japan in spite of not being suitable for a Japanese garden. She realises that she will never truly be accepted by the Japanese despite her love for their culture and her attempts to conform to their traditions which are against everything Western.
It is interesting to follow her evolution from a young fresh naive girl to a mature woman. Thanks to her character and strength, she becomes an independent businesswoman who can fight for herself, a real feminist before our time.
We also notice that she is very true to herself, realistic and aware of her limitations and errors of judgements. She never describes her private emotions ( which probably comes from her Scottish upbringing). She is a real survivor.
Let’s mention that the end is very moving, delicate, subtle.
This book, written through letters and journals, hits home. The dry Scottish sense of humour is very present throughout the story.
The description of nature is beautiful. Life in China and Japan is well documented.
All the ladies who read the book loved it