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Song of the Azalea: a review

May 20th, 2005 · 2 Comments

Note: As soon as I saw Song of the Azalea I wanted to read it, so when Joann, one of the two authors and a friend I’ve met through blogging, offered to send me a copy to review, I accepted!

Song of the Azalea by Kenneth Ore with Joann Yu is not a book to read before bedtime, for two reasons. First, the images in the opening chapters are intense and painful, as one might expect in a description of war and occupation. I tried to read snippets in the moments before I fell asleep but instead I found myself waking in the morning grateful to be alive in America today, the stories of Kenneth Ore and his family in WWII China haunting me. I didn’t have any nightmares but I wouldn’t have been surprised if I had.

However, the other reason not to read Song of the Azalea before bedtime is that it was difficult to stop and sleep. Not only was the plot suspenseful but the writing itself was like dessert, lyrical and smooth, simple and sweet, despite the harsh times it described. The glimpses the book gave, both external and internal, into the realities of daily life in China sixty years ago, and the inner passions of a young man growing up in poverty and wartime fascinated me. For Mother’s Day, I indulged myself by spending the afternoon with a book. I picked up Song of the Azalea and didn’t close the covers until I was done, hours later. I had to know what would happen to Mr. Ore and his family.

Years have passed since I last studied China’s politics and policies and even then my intellectual knowledge of its history was limited. However, I do know now personally, through relationships, that aspects of Mr. Ore’s story were shared by many people who lived during that time, in China and elsewhere. His book was an excellent first person account, starting with the arranged marriage of his mother and then picking up the story again in 1941 Hong Kong when he was a boy. The details shared, including the adjectives and phrasing, painted vivid pictures, especially for this American mind.

Song of the Azalea educated me. It is the kind of book I will keep for decades because I want my children to read it. I’ll incorporate it into our curriculum. Walking in Mr. Ore’s shoes, the reader could understand why he considered Communism and also feel the pain of the family’s situation and the sacrifices he made for his beliefs. It’s a story of cult and courage, of idealism and ideas, of beauty, beast and betrayal.

This Memoir of a Chinese Son spoke to me about the power of poverty. It also spoke to me of idealism and dreams. Reading it, I realized how we as people often become attached to the institution we believe will implement our hopes, rather than remaining devoted to the ideals themselves. We may join an organization because it fits our vision, yet often the organization may supplant our passion for its own benefit, leaving us feeling unfulfilled and used. As I put the book down, I thought about what it means to sacrifice for an ideal. Mr. Ore’s story was a vivid example of giving up life for a cause, challenging me to consider how little I had suffered for my own beliefs.

Song of the Azalea also confirmed the human need to desire significance and to be a part of a bigger whole. Mr. Ore’s sacrifices for the sake of Communism testify of his passion to bring change to China. Through the twists and turns of the story, my admiration for him remained constant. Although he lived a secret life, hiding his Communist identity from his family and others, he lived for what he thought was true, for an ideology larger than his life.

I was surprised to discover on that indulgent Sunday afternoon that the story was an appropriate one for Mother’s Day. I don’t want to disclose major details so I will be intentionally vague. However I will say that this book also told of the power of family. In life, we have allegiances we choose, and ones that are chosen for us by the bonds of birth. Blood is strong. The ending is not borrowed from a fairy tale but there is happiness amidst the broken pieces.

Kenneth Ore and Joann Yu have authored an excellent work, sharing secrets and revealing moments of sorrow and joy in this memoir. Song of the Azalea is a human song playing the truths of who we are. It is a song of desperation and determination. It is bittersweet and beautiful, written by two artists who pulled away the curtain from Mr. Ore’s life to tell stories of passion and pain. I feel the book also pulled away pieces of my heart, opening my eyes, heart and mind, leaving me aching and grateful for their courage.

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2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 timbu // May 24, 2005 at 11:16 am

    I was wondering if you have read any of Amy Tan’s novels like “Bonesetter’s Daughter” or “Kitchen God’s Wife”. Your description of the plot and setting of this book reminds me a little of the plot and settings of her books.

  • 2 Julie // May 26, 2005 at 5:57 am

    Hi Tim,

    Yes I have read some of Amy Tan’s novels, years ago. From what I remember, one of the big differences in plot is that Tan’s central characters often grew up in America, their parents immigrants with secret lives, while Kenneth Ore spent many years in China. I also don’t remember Tan focussing on Communist party members but I could be wrong.

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