The Distant Land of My Father

The Distant Land of My Father

by Bo Caldwell

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For Anna, the narrator of Bo Caldwell's richly lyrical and vivid first novel, growing up in the magical world of Shanghai in the 1930s and 1940s creates a special bond between her and her father. He is the son of missionaries, a smuggler, and a millionaire who leads a charmed but secretive life. When the family flees to Los Angeles in the face of the Japanese occupation, he chooses to remain, believing his connections and luck will keep him safe.

He's wrong. He survives, only to again choose Shanghai over his family during the Second World War. Anna and her father reconnect late in his life, when she finally has a family of her own, but it is only when she discovers his extensive journals that she is able to fully understand him and the reasons for his absences. With the intensity and appeal of When We Were Orphans, also set in Shanghai at the same time, The Distant Land of My Father tells a moving and unforgettable story about a most unusual father-daughter relationship.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780811875219
Publisher: Chronicle Books LLC
Publication date: 04/29/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 262,668
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Bo Caldwell has published short stories in numerous literary magazines. Her nonfiction writing includes a long-running series of personal essays in the Washington Post Magazine. A former Stegner Fellow in creative writing at Stanford University, she lives in Northern California. This is her first novel.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


SHANGHAI, JUNE 1937, the air hot and muggy. My father stood on the verandah of our home, a villa on Hungjao Road in the western suburbs outside of the International Settlement. His back was to me as he looked out at the expanse of lawn that to me, at six, seemed vast as an ocean. He faced east, toward the Bund and the Whangpoo River, and I thought I smelled the river's familiar sharpness, a grimy mix of factory smoke and seaweed and fish, though the Whangpoo was some ten miles away.

    It was dusk, a word that I understood as "dust," which made sense to me, one of those few words whose meaning matched its sound. That was how the world seemed at that hour: slightly dusty, softened and dimly covered in some eerie talc, the sharp edges chalk-picture blurry. My father had played polo that afternoon and still wore his riding clothes, off-white jodhpurs and a jersey shirt, the color so creamy it appeared liquid, and black leather boots that I wanted to touch to see if they were real. They seemed somehow conjured up. He, too, seemed conjured up, in that dim light. He leaned on the verandah wall, his drink next to him, a tumbler that held Four Roses, golden, the color of caramel, and it was as though the Scotch softened everything: the night, the stone wall, the leaves of the plane trees just beyond, the sharp edges of the crystal tumbler, my father himself.

    My father stood very still, gazing out at a city that he loved. To me, it was simply home, no more, no less. But as I stood in the doorway, watching him, waiting for him to feel my presence, I felt certain inside that I was in exactly the right place: this house, this doorway, this night, this father. I wore a white cotton nightgown that had been sewn by hand. I was clean, just out of the bath, my long brown hair a cool wet trail down my back. Chu Shih, our cook, had given me long-life noodles and jasmine tea for dinner, then helped me get ready for bed so that I could say good night to my parents before they went out.

    I heard my mother's voice then, and I turned from the doorway before my father saw me. She was descending the long curved staircase, and she wore a wine-colored silk dress with a border of pearls sewn into the neckline. My mother's name was Genevieve, and it suited her: she was elegant and graceful, and was always known only by her full name, with one exception: to my father she was Eve, and when he said her name, he did so intimately. Our last name, Schoene—pronounced "show-en"—meant beautiful or handsome in German, and I thought it suited both of my parents. When I was afraid, I would repeat their names to myself, and the sound of those names lulled me and made me feel safe: Joseph and Genevieve Schoene.

    My mother smiled at me, and I suddenly wanted her not to go out. I wanted her close, though there was no reason to be anxious. This was just an ordinary night. My parents went out most evenings. I learned only later, when my mother and I had moved to the United States, the startling fact that parents usually stayed at home with their children in the evenings.

    My mother did not share my father's passion for Shanghai, but rather held the city at arm's length. It was an entity she did not want to know better, and she was every bit as diffident toward it as my father was affectionate. He knew every part of the city, while my mother knew only what she had to. She seemed to regard it as a temporary post, not a home, and she used what she called her landmark system. In each neighborhood, she chose a starting point, and she always started from that place, regardless of where she had to end up. In the French Concession it was the Cercle Sportif Français, a nightclub she liked on Route Cardinal Mercier. In the International Settlement it was the Sun Sun Department Store at the corner of Tibet and Nanking Road. On the Bund it was the brass lions in front of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank. Her plan seemed to work; my mother was never lost. I understood her system, for I had a landmark of my own, a place I always started from to get wherever I was going, a reference point for everything I did. It was my father.

    My father was, from my careful observations of him, a person who solved problems. When I was five, I accidentally swallowed a Reese's cinnamon drop whole, and I began to choke. My father stood only a few feet away; we were at the home of his friend Will Marsh, and he was just saying good night. He glanced at me, looked back at his friend, looked at me again, and said, "Excuse me." Then he simply picked me up by my ankles, held me upside down, and laughed when the cinnamon drop popped out of my mouth. For a long time, his ability to fix whatever was wrong was a given of my childhood.

    There were other givens as well. My mother's elegance, her patient manner, her propriety and composure. She taught me never to say I was full after a meal, but only that I had "had a sufficiency." Her beauty was a given. I knew even as a young child that she was beautiful, not the way children think their mothers are—I knew she was, from the way men stared when she entered the room, the way other women regarded her, the intensity with which my father watched her. For a long time, her beautiful long hair was a given, always worn in a chignon at the nape of her neck. It seemed somehow private, the most intimate part of her, as though it held secrets she would never divulge. Her intense yet somehow odd devotion to my father was also a given. She was like his moon: she circled only him, yet always at a distance.

    On that summer evening, when my mother reached the bottom of the stairs, she glanced around her as though getting her bearings. It was a familiar gesture; she was looking for my father, and it was what she always did first when she entered a room or a house or a garden. Now she glanced about and, not seeing him, looked at me.

    "He's outside," I said simply

    She nodded, then leaned toward me, smoothing the wet strands of my bangs off my forehead. "You're warm, Anna."

    "Can I see your hair?" I asked.

    She stooped so that she was closer to my height. She did this gracefully, a small miracle in her long, fitted dress. She smelled like Chanel No. 5, and just under it, a trace of lilac from her bath. She turned so that I could see her back, and her hair was the way it always was, bound at the nape of her neck. I leaned close to see what she was using to hold it there. On the carved mahogany dresser in her room was a Venetian leather jewelry box that held in its crimson velvet lining more than a dozen fasteners and combs made of ivory, tortoiseshell, silver, jade. Tonight she wore my favorites: two intricately carved ivory needles that intersected and held her hair perfectly in place.

    We heard my father's footsteps then. My mother looked up, about to stand, and I asked the question that was always in my mind but which I had never voiced. "Do you love him more, or me?"

    She did not hesitate. "I love you both," she said simply. And then she rose, smoothed her skirt, and went outside to join him.

    They left a short time later, after my father had showered and shaved and dressed in a dinner coat. He whistled "Moonglow" as he came downstairs, and I knew he was in good spirits. My mother stood at the large window in the kitchen, sipping a glass of sherry, waiting for him. He came into the room and smiled at her. And then he saw me, sitting at the table, drawing.

    "You," he said, and he headed toward me and seemed as large as the huge brass lions that guarded the entrance of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank. "And now for you." And in two strides he reached me and lifted me from my chair and held me so high that I felt the closeness of the ceiling just above my head. I breathed in his scent of Old Spice and Four Roses and Philippine cigars, and I was certain that my father was strong enough to hold up the world. His hands were warm and firm and huge around my rib cage, and I wanted him to never put me down.

    But he did, of course, and my sides stayed warm from his grip as he roughly kissed my cheek and held the door for my mother and headed into the still night, whistling again. I heard the sound of car doors as my parents slid into the backseat of the Packard, which waited for them outside, then the crunch of gravel as Mei Wah, my father's Sikh chauffeur, walked to the front of the car, and then the sound of his door. And then I heard the even hum of the Packard's engine, a sound I came to dread, as it eased toward the street.

    I went out on the verandah. My father's glass was still on the wall, empty except for its strong scent of Scotch. I watched the car slowly make its way toward the street, its red taillights bright. When it reached the end of the driveway and left the gravel to meet the road, it blew out a small cloud of dirt, like a kiss, and I took a deep breath and felt the fine dust of my father's presence, familiar, another given, filling the cracks and covering the surface of my life.

Excerpted from the distant land of my father by bo caldwell. Copyright © 2001 by Bo Caldwell. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Reading Group Guide

1. What kinds and what degrees of actual and imagined disloyalty, from the political to the personal, occur in the novel? What kinds and what degrees of actual and imagined betrayal? What does the author appear to be saying about disloyalty and betrayal, and about the possibilities of reconciliation and forgiveness?

2. Anna says of her father, "I had a landmark of my own, a place I always started from to get wherever I was going, a reference point for everything I did." (8) What are the advantages and disadvantages of making one person such a landmark in one's life? What burdens might it place upon that other person, and what dangers might it pose for oneself?

3. After Joseph's kidnapping, Anna's mother tells her, "Your father is somewhat unpredictable. . . . He has strong ideas and people don't always agree with those ideas, and he does what he wants, whether people like it or not. And sometimes it gets him into trouble." (48) What does get Joseph Schoene into trouble, and how? What are the consequences of his doing what he wants? To what extent is he irresponsible in not thinking through the impact of his actions?

4. In what ways might the contrast between the street scenes during the Battle of Shanghai and the reception at the Cercle Sportif emphasize the perennial differences between the haves and the have-nots of this world? What other manifestations of this theme occur in the novel? What contemporary or historical parallels might there be with the attitude of the European and American businessmen and the wealthy Chinese in 1937 Shanghai?

5. What notion and what actuality of home are cherished by each of the Schoenes and the other importantcharacters? How might we explain the differences or attitude and perception among them and the consequences of those differences? How would you define home?

6. Anna says of her father's refusal to leave Shanghai, "There was too much money to be made, too much opportunity, to just walk away." (133) What are the personal, social, political, and moral consequences of basing one's decisions, values, and actions solely on business and money-making opportunities?

7. "We were both so good at catering to him, at revolving around him," Anna says of her and her mother's relationship to Joseph. (203) What model of family life does Caldwell present? Is it a model with which you are familiar? Is it a model that seems widespread in the United States today?

8. After Joseph's "breezy" telegram arrives from Shanghai at the end of September 1945, Anna's grandmother tells her: "Your father is a difficult man. I'm sure he has his good side, and I suspect his heart is sometimes in the right place. But his intentions never become actions . . . It's not a question of love. It's a question of who he is, and what he wants." (216) Do these statements and the observations that follow constitute an accurate assessment of Joseph Schoene and his behavior? Is it, with him, never a question of love? To what extent is it true that "he has no vision . . . and always will be an opportunist"? (216)

9. What specific capabilities make Genevieve "a master of adaptability" and self-transformation (249) How would you describe Joseph Schoene's skills at adapting? What adaptations and self-transformations does each undertake? What incidents show most dramatically or most convincingly the rea circumstances, and consequences-and the limitations-of their adaptive powers? How and why do others undergo transformations? With what results?

10. "Anything is possible in these times. There is no limit to what is now possible," says the Russian trustee, Nikolai Petrovich, in Ward Road Jail. (280) In addition to his most immediate reference, what are the possible implications of his statement in the world of the jail and the world of the second half of the twentieth century? What personal implications might the statement have for Joseph Schoene? What limits disappear within the time scope of the novel?

11. What kinds of love occur in The Distant Land of My Father? Between or among whom? From what circumstances do these loves spring, what circumstances nourish some of them, and what circumstances jeopardize or destroy others?

12. Two of the old Chinese cook Chu Shih's sayings have later resonance in the novel: Hsin chong yu shei, shei chiu p'iaoliang and His hua hua chiehkuo, ai liu liu ch-êngyin. The first-"Whoever is in your heart is beautiful"-is repeated to Anna by her dying mother as the basis for forgiving her father. Joseph quotes the second-"Love and attention make all things grow"-as he works in the South Pasadena garden. How do these two Shanghai adages apply to each main character and the characters' interrelationships? In what ways might they apply to the novel overall? What instances of unusual love, attention, beauty, and growth are there in the novel, and what instances of their opposites?

13. Anna recalls that, listening to Dr. Pearson's explanation of Joseph's death, "I wanted causes and events, reasons why, a sense of order." (350) To what might these three desires motivate all the characters? The author herself? All of us?

14. What does Joseph Schoene's final residence, its furnishings and appliances, the books it contains, and its "decorations" reveal about his life and his character?

Copyright (c) 2002. Published by Harcourt, Inc.

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The Distant Land of My Father (Harvest Book Series) 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 105 reviews.
kiriandketa More than 1 year ago
This is an absolutely wonderful first novel by Bo Caldwell. I'm always excited to discover a new author, but even more thrilled to find one who writes so well. I savored every word. She makes Shanghai come alive with sights and sounds, and the characters are so well developed. The ending was sad but given all of the events in the story, it had to be.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was assigned this book as a summer reading book for school, so I thought it was just going to be another boring & dull book. Luckily, I was wrong. This book was actually very interesting and I found myself not wanting to put it down. I really enjoyed reading it and you felt like you were connected with the characters like you actually knew them. Bo Caldwell did a great job writing this novel and I'm glad I was assigned this book for the summer. I've already reccommended this book to people I know! Definitely a great read!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Really great book. True story told by the daughter who immigrated to the US with her mother but not her father. Good history info about 2 wars that happened in ShangHai.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Engrossing, lush and exotic!! Hard to believe that this is not a memoir. It is written in such a personal narrative voice. The descriptions of Shanghai are so vivid I can feel the sultry humid air and the freezing cold. The interpersonal relationships are complex and well defined. Just a marvelous book, best book I've read since Suite Francaise!! This would make a great movie!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
No matter what happens, a loving family will stay together and survive one way or another, especially when the going is really tough.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a love story, the love between a father and daughter, a man and a woman and a man and a city. Bo Caldwell shows the delicate layering of each relationship and how they interact over a period of some 25 years. But that is too dry a description for a book that will leave you searching for a hankie. Anna Schoene's reaction to her father's refusal to put his wife and child before his love for the city of Shanghai is told so beautifully and so truthfully that the book reads far more like autobiography than fiction. The emotions are that well presented. It's the kind of book that will resonate for days after you've turned the last page.
-----Sharon More than 1 year ago
Have lots of tissue ready for the tears.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was an excellent book. I couldn't put it down and as soon as I finished it, I passed it to a friend!
NJ-Nina More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book. I am a nonstop reader and love a good nonfiction interspersed with my fiction. This book gives insight into what Japan did during World Word II in China and to how foreigners were treated. This well written book is a great read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I loved this book,visiting Shanghai in the past,the love for each other of the characters.... and to be able to forgive. I hope Ms Calwell gives us a new book me she is part of the group of Buck,Elegant,Lin Yutang and others...
Guest More than 1 year ago
A well developed, touching story of a young girl whose millionaire father loses his family and fortune through lack of vision and a series of wrong judgments. The author shows clearly how the adoration of a child for her father gradually turns into disappointment as his decisions degrade her family life. The daughter eventually overcomes her resentment against her father through reading his diary and unterstanding his motives.
Anonymous 7 months ago
readingfiend on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
When I was done with this book I just sat holding it because it was so moving and so intense through the whole book. I don't think there was a page I hurried through. It was so rich in its story and detail. Briefly, Anna an only child living with her parents in Shanghai in the 30s. Her father had lived there with his missionary parents and after meeting his wife in college, they got married and moved back to Shanghai where he was a "businessman". He mostly bought things people needed for a low price and sold it to them for a high price. Things start to turn ugly with the Japanese and Anna's mother books passage for Anna and herself hoping it will force her husband to follow. This book was written in the first person and you would swear it is a memoir. I had to keep reminding myself that it wasn't.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A great read. A wonderful story teller with a superb writing style.
lorax on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is the sort of character-driven book that's very difficult for me to review. The Distant Land of my Father is the story of Anna Schoene and her father Joseph, a Chinese-born American citizen, in the mid-20th century. It is the story of Anna's relationship with her father; since it's a character-driven book, it won't surprise anyone to learn that the arc of the relationship is from a young girl idolizing her father, through disillusionment and rejection, to forgiveness. There is, essentially, no plot; major events of the twentieth century affect the characters, but they don't really do much, and the tone is somewhat removed. The writing is evocative of both Shanghai and Los Angeles; the LA parts ring very true, referencing specific places that still exist , which gives me confidence that the Shanghai part may be similarly well-researched.
BAP1012 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Beautiful novel. The details of place and depth of character in this book made it a very fulfilling read. The pictures in my mind were clear and full from the prose Ms. Caldwell created.
brsquilt on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Fiction that reads like fact. Relationship between daughter and her father - realistic and satisfying. War parts and prison parts hard to read. The ending was good and I was happy I read the book. Well written.
tina1969 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Have read this book before and have read it again for this months book group. Didn't get anything more out of this book a second time around. Did find the war and prison parts in the book very hard going. Felt the dad was very selfish at times and I got annoyed with the character.
dwrf on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Elegant story about the meaning of place, memory, and home. The memoir style lends the story a striking realism and Caldwell's clean prose brings pre-war Shanghai vibrantly to life. The story begins in Shanghai and is that of an expatriate American couple and their young daughter. The approaching war forces the mother and child to leave for Los Angeles, but the father, certain his connections will protect him, remains behind in his beloved Shanghai. Many years later, Anna finds her father's journals and at last learns about the man believed abandoned and betrayed his family. Moving story of loss and reconciliation.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book will take you to places of exotic beauty and horrifying realities of being in an occupied foreign city. It has a realistic serving of human emotions and survival. The author weaves the story of a most dynamic man and the wife and daughter who love him. I loved these strong women.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Felt very invested in main charater. Interesting to read about china before,during and after ww2.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ann_Louise More than 1 year ago
This is a sad book - but with elements of family love and overcoming wrongs without forgetting the past. It will remind you of your own family relationships. Can't recommend it highly enough.