cover image The Moon Pearl

The Moon Pearl

Ruthanne Lum McCunn. Beacon Press (MA), $24 (352pp) ISBN 978-0-8070-8348-2

In China in the 1830s, three young girls pledge never to be wives or nuns, the conventional paths open to them, but to live independently. McCunn's colorful third novel (after Thousand Pieces of Gold) follows the adventures of Shadow, Rooster and Mei Ju, who meet in a traditional ""girls' house,"" where female adolescents sleep and work together and are trained to become obedient wives. Shadow, the luckiest of the three, comes from a loving family. Under her mother's guidance, she learned to embroider, and her older brother secretly taught her to read, a skill forbidden to women. When Shadow then instructs her friends--sharp-tongued, rebellious Rooster, whose family is very poor, and Mei Ju, a timid girl with a talent for silk making--she changes their way of looking at the world. Together, the three vow to chart their own lives. Setting up house in the village rain shelter, they plait their hair rather than wear wifely buns and learn to bargain with wily peddlers. Though they are ostracized at first, various selfless acts and sacrifices finally win them grudging acceptance. Despite their privations, the example of Yun Yun, the mistreated wife of the most brutal man in the village, reminds them what their fate might have been. Though it's recounted with the artful simplicity of a folktale, the novel is anchored in fact: women in 19th-century China's Pearl River district, dubbed ""self-combers"" for their work in the silk industry, did struggle to achieve independence, living together in ""spinster houses."" McCunn does not present the trio's warm sisterhood as utopian; rather, she convincingly details the emotional suffering they experience in challenging custom. A somewhat pat happy ending gives the novel the ring of didactic literature, but McCunn's vivid, intimate portrait of early women's liberation in China is, above all, a good story, lovingly told. 6-city author tour. (Sept.)