Suffer the little children
One woman’s attempts to better the lot of China’s orphans.
THE child on the front cover, seemingly perched precariously on edge yet wearing a couldn’t-care-less smile, would make anyone want to read the book, if only to find out what she is all about. Well, that’s what moved me to pick up this book, anyway.
As the page numbers turned into double and triple digits, I came to know who the little girl was but I never quite understood what she was all about.
Written in the first person, the book takes us on a journey into black secrets that we thought had died in this digital and supposedly civilised age.
Screenwriter, filmmaker and author Jenny Bowen, together with her husband, Dick, had adopted an orphan from China. Maya came to the American couple a scrawny, unloved child but she turned out to be a game-changer for the Bowens, giving them a renewed purpose in life.
One ordinary day, as Bowen watched Maya playing in the garden with abandon just months after she had been taken out of the orphanage, the author realised that it was not enough to make just one girl happy – and that is how Bowen’s Half the Sky Foundation came into being.
The foundation’s volunteers work with orphanages in China – long viewed as mere “storage” warehouses – to change the way the children in them are treated. The map of China at the start of the book is an indication of Bowen’s visits to China, sometimes with Dick in tow. Bowen mostly rushes in and out of Chinese cities and villages, and the map gives an idea of the time spent and distance travelled.
Many characters come and go, and the names of people and places are two things that I found tiresome to keep track of, save for ZZ, who seemed to have had her role bolted throughout the book.
In fact, I feel that the writer was too charged up about wanting to tell us about the trials and tribulations of setting up the Half Sky Foundation’s offices around China. There isn’t enough ado about the Bowens’ two adopted daughters, Maya and Anya (who came later).
We get only occasional glimpses of the girls trying to settle in and lose their wary inhibitions, and I feel this part was emotionally lacking.
Bowen’s larger vision of reaching out to more children from the orphanages in China is indeed a noble effort – but what I wanted more of was to share the growing up years of Maya and Anya.
Anya, the second adopted daughter, was particularly difficult in the early years, according to Bowen, but we don’t know for sure when and how that changes.
Each sub-title in the book is a Chinese proverb or saying translated into English, and while I don’t know for sure what impact they have on the story, they carry heavy messages. Among those that I found particularly profound are: “Unless there is opposing wind, the kite cannot fly”, “A good beginning is half the journey”, and “A burnt tongue becomes shy of the soup”. The messages aren’t new, perhaps, but they are conveyed so poetically.
The objective of writing the book seems unclear to me: Is it to record the writer’s journey or is it to share insights into the orphans and her adopted daughters?
I also feel that there is a touch of fiction in this non-fiction book: Bowen’s journey in realising the Half the Sky Foundation is most definitely non-fiction; but I feel that the story also carries a bit of exaggeration, as Bowen justifies the need for it in the beginning of the book. Perhaps, this mix of non-fiction and dramatisation will gain a wider readership.