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THE GINGER TREE BY OSWALD WYND

9780060959678

THE GINGER TREE BY OSWALD WYND

The Ginger Tree by Oswald Wynd was published in 1977 but the story it tells begins in 1903. We read the diary entries of the fictional Mary Mackenzie, and her letters – over the next forty years.

We meet Mary MacKenzie aboard a ship on her way to China to be married to Richard Collingsworth, an officer with the British Legation in Peking. She has never been away from Edinburgh before and we see her begin to change as people do “east of Suez”.

Mary arrives in Peking only a few years after the Boxer “troubles”, an uprising against imperialist expansion, cosmopolitan influences and missionary evangelism. It was a violent conflict and many foreigners were held captive within the fortified Legation until troops arrived to defeat the rebels.

Richard is away a great deal on diplomatic missions, leaving Mary isolated and unhappy. It is soon apparent that the marriage is not a happy one – but with Mary immediately pregnant she has little choice but to stay. The baby, Jane, is born but Mary does not seem able to bond with her child, and Richard is disappointed that she is not a son.

The political situation in the Far East and in Europe is of contact concern and is important background to the lives of the characters in this novel. They will all be affected by the Russo-Japanese War, the First World War, and the Second World War, in turn.

Shortly after Jane’s birth, while on holiday with another diplomatic couple, Mary meets a Japanese officer, the Count Kurihama. There is an immediate, intense attraction and Mary’s diary entry reads ”God forgive me, I went to him.” “All I can think of in this madness that has taken me is his body.” “ His name is Kentaro. We have five more days.”

When Mary admits that she is again pregnant – and that the father is not her husband, she is “put out” but instead of returning to Scotland she surfaces in Tokyo. Jane is sent to England to be raised by Richard’s mother.

Mary makes a life for herself in Tokyo with financial assistance provided by the Count, and her son, Tomo, is born. When the Count does return it is to see his son – and to orchestrate his removal from Mary.

Bereft at the loss of her son, as she was not for her daughter, Mary is determined to stay in Tokyo hoping that, if she is patient, Tomo will be restored to her.

All of this only three years after Mary MacKenzie left Scotland excited about her future. She is now a disgraced wife – who will receive no assistance from the British Legation. Her future will depend on her own resourcefulness, and with Japanese women interested in Western fashions she establishes a very profitable business as a clothing designer and manufacturer.

The reader will follow Mary’s fortunes, and misfortunes, as she grows older in a rapidly changing world. Japan is becoming increasingly industrialized and prosperous, with an “emergence of contempt for the West”.

It was fascinating to read a description of the earthquakes of 1923 when much of Tokyo was destroyed – but Mary finds safety in the new Imperial Hotel, one of the few buildings in the city left standing, built by Frank Lloyd Wright’s. The architect had a long association with Japan – and he also was involved in a messy affair that was considered extremely scandalous at this time.

Mary has every intention of staying the Far East – but by late 1941 foreigners are no longer welcome in Japan and with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor Mary will have no choice but to leave. She is escorted to an ocean liner heading to England. She is 58 years old, and has lived in the Far East for almost 40 years.

The novel ends with the reader wondering what sort of a life Mary Mackenzie will make for herself in England – unless, of course, she jumps ship along the way.

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