“To know a story is to carry it always, etched in his bones, even if dormant for decades.” (Melissa Fu, Peach Blossom Spring, 4)
These days, it feels like every other historical fiction novel is about World War II. Many of these are written by women authors and focus on female characters. Whether these characters work as codebreakers at Bletchley Circle, are part of the collaborators or the Resistance in occupied France, or even compete to helm a BBC show focused on cooking with rations, these characters reflect the importance of “women’s fiction” in the publishing world, where you can sell lots of copies of a historical fiction novel that depicts a woman turned away from the camera on the cover.
Yet the vast majority of these novels are set in Europe. Books on the Pacific side of the war are fewer and far between in English-language publishing. My own family connections to WWII lie in China, so I was unable to resist reading Peach Blossom Spring, Melissa Fu’s first novel. The book follows three generations of a Chinese family as they flee the Japanese occupation, settle in America, and struggle with passing their story to the next generation. Meilin, widowed young in the early days of the war, spends years migrating across China from city to city, fleeing the occupiers with her son, Renshu. Though they settle briefly in Shanghai, they again flee during the Chinese Civil War and eventually end up in Taiwan, where Renshu graduates from high school and college. After his required military service, he adopts the name Henry and attends graduate school in the United States, earning master’s and PhD degrees. He marries a white woman, Rachel, just a year after Loving v. Virginia legalizes interracial marriage. Eventually, he becomes an American citizen, settles in Los Alamos, starts a family, and works as an engineer developing Cold War technologies.
I have little concrete idea of how well this mirrors my own family history. My grandmother Enid Shu Ansley Cooper would never talk of her childhood and early adulthood, and so I know very little. She was born in Shanghai in 1927 to an American mother and a Chinese father. I have no idea how my great-grandmother came to China or how she met my great-grandfather. He spent at least part of the war in the military, though my grandmother never said if it was with Chiang Kai-shek or Mao Zedong. At age eighteen and as World War II ended, she and her parents got berths on a ship to America. I always assumed this was because her mother was American, but again I just don’t know. Within about six months of their arrival in the US, her father died in a car accident. My grandmother became a model, met and married my (white) grandfather, had three children, and divorced. She remarried and lived most of her life in Connecticut.
In high school, a history class required that I interview someone about their life. Enid’s reticence about her early life had always confused me, and I took this opportunity to finally ask questions about her upbringing in China, her experiences during the war, and their migration to the United States. Yet, even during this opportunity to share, she held back. Enid told just one story from the war that day. It must have been 1945, and she would have been seventeen or eighteen years old. She was outside their home – an apartment, a house, I have no idea – and she saw a beggar coming down the street. It wasn’t until he was very close that she recognized her own father, who had trudged home from war. She showed my parents and me a few artifacts from her childhood that day, including Chinese school books. But she said she didn’t remember any of the Chinese language she had spoken as a child. I was amazed – she had lived eighteen years in another country, in another culture, and claimed to remember very little. But just like Enid, Henry too begins to lose the language after moving to America: “In all these years of building his English, his Chinese has leaked away” (374).
As an adult, I have often wondered how much the trauma of those years – the Japanese occupation, years spent with her father at war, and his death, which she witnessed as a passenger in the car – led her to purposefully forget, to push away those memories. Her decades as a housewife in Connecticut must have felt very distant from that wartime youth. It’s only as an adult, as I learned more about twentieth-century history and what happened in the 1930s and 1940s in wartime Shanghai, that I more fully comprehended what those harrowing years must have been like. And so I find myself drawn to fiction about this period, novels that might give some insight into just what my grandmother and my great-grandparents experienced.
In Peach Blossom Spring, Henry and Rachel’s daughter, Lily, is also curious about her Chinese heritage and her father’s childhood. After a summer visit from Meilin, Rachel begins taking Lily to Chinese language classes. But Henry worries that with Meilin still living in Taiwan, he cannot risk getting too close to other Chinese immigrants and being associated with either the Republicans in Taiwan or the Communists on the mainland; if Taiwanese leaders got the wrong ideas about his political beliefs, Meilin could be at risk. Though Rachel insists Lily wants to learn about her heritage, Henry wants to leave “all that misery, all that sadness” behind. “In time, she’ll forget she asked,” he claims. “In place of sad stories, Henry will give his daughter a blank page. He cannot imagine a more generous gesture” (296–97).
Lily grows up, struggles to find her place as a half-Chinese, half-white college student. Only when Meilin becomes ill do Henry and Lily go together to Taipei, but they arrive too late to see her. The trip brings them together, showing Lily her father in his native culture and finally allowing Henry to open the gates to the memories he had held onto so tightly.
After my grandparents divorced, my father and his siblings went with their father. I have wondered how much more I’d know about Enid’s childhood had her children spent more time with her. Perhaps these stories would have trickled out over the years. Or perhaps she felt like Henry does in Peach Blossom Spring, that the horrors of the war years were better left in the past.
My own family stories of the war are gone with my grandmother, who died in 2019 at age ninety-one. Presumably we have family in China, aunts and uncles and cousins left behind in 1945 whose names I’ll never know. I’ll never know what it was like for my grandmother, half Chinese and half American, growing up in Shanghai. But reading Peach Blossom Spring makes me feel some connection to that lost heritage, part of a larger community of descendants from that war generation – including Melissa Fu herself – who also missed out on the stories that were too painful, too traumatic, too raw.
As a historian, I find myself asking: Does Enid have a right to be forgotten? Do I have any right to know about her extraordinary life? After she died, my father found an illustration in her possessions. It was signed by the artist, Milton Caniff, and depicted the character Snowflower from his Steve Canyon comic strip. It turns out that my grandmother had been the model for that character. That led me for the first time to Google my grandmother’s name, and I came across a few photographs from her modeling career, including that Snowflower inspiration. This was yet another part of her life Enid had no interest in revisiting – she was going to throw away her modeling portfolio until my mother insisted on saving it. If her wartime memories were a burden, perhaps she just thought no one would be interested in her modeling career. But I’m thankful for the few images I have found, the few tidbits she did tell us, and books like Peach Blossom Spring that can help me understand, even just a little bit more, about Enid. Through Lily, Henry, and Meilin, I’ve found a window into Enid’s history.