Forgotten Classic: The Ginger Tree

Editor’s Note - The clash of cultures between East and West has been the subject of many award-winning novels, including last year’s winner of the prestigious Man Booker prize, The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. Flanagan’s novel depicts the horrific experiences of prisoners tasked with building the Thai-Burma death railroad during the Second World War and the struggles of both prisoners and guards to make sense of those events later in life. Fans of the work may want to explore a gentler, kinder exploration of this theme in Oswald Wynd’s forgotten classic, The Ginger Tree.See the short-list for this year's Man Booker prize, announced last week, here. The winner will be named in October.

When the novel opens, Mary MacKenzie, a young Scottish girl, is aboard the ship SS Mooldera en route to China to marry a British foreign officer whom she barely knows. The world unfolds before her naïve eyes bit by bit. First she observes life on the ship with its panorama of human behaviors and opinions and later Peking, as she reaches her destination with husband-to-be waiting on the dock. As the months pass, she is left hollow and disillusioned by the social scene, her marriage and the birth of their first child. As the reality of her life sinks in, she sees that though her present situation has an exotic setting, the restrictions are just as real and numbing as the rigors of her Scottish upbringing.

One morning, when she and her infant daughter are on holiday away from her absent husband, she walks alone on a path above the sea. Coming into a clearing, her restlessness is suddenly stilled by the sight of a Japanese warrior in meditation at the edge of the cliff. The samurai and Mary's yearnings collide forcefully. Though her actions are deliberate, she doesn't contemplate the consequences of her passion. They are dire. Mary is expelled from China by her tyrannical husband, forcing her to leave her young daughter behind. Under the sponsorship of Kentaro, the Japanese warrior, she seeks a new life in Japan for herself.

The book is written in a format of letters and journal entries, depicting the life of Mary MacKenzie as she navigates the turbulent waters of being a woman, single mother and foreigner in a Far Eastern country in the early 1900s. Her adventures include tsunamis, social ostracism, business ventures, missionaries and activists and all play out with the ominous notes of World War I and II in the background. Above the clamor is the steady watchful eye of Kentaro, who keeps firm fingers on the pulse of her life, emerging from time to time like the mystery he is.

The novel is a love story first and foremost - love of a man and woman, love of country, love of tradition, love of independence. It is a lens of history through which we see fierce passion and a determination to persevere despite the resounding clash of cultures. Mary MacKenzie, with a low bow, gives us a poignant treatise of the heart.

-Lois Glick, Great Falls Library

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