Summary – Chapter Three, ‘Shaman’
This chapter begins by referring to the narrator’s mother’s medical diploma. It is explained that her mother used the money sent to her by her husband to become a doctor when living in China. He was still in the United States and their two children had died (aged two and three). It is described how she left the family home to study and for two years was free of families and lived ‘without servitude’. The narrator’s mother was 20 years older than the other students, but only admitted to being 10 years older. She studied in secret and was expected to do better as she was older (and so the younger she claimed to be, the less pressure she felt).
The story is also related of her mother showing her bravery to the other students by sleeping alone in a room where there was supposed to be a ghost. It sat on her in the night and she told the others about it the next day. She also directed arrangements to get rid of it.
After two years, she returned home as a doctor. She also kept her maiden name, Brave Orchid, even when she emigrated. When she returned to her village, she also had girl with her, who was a slave she bought on the road from a professional trader. She told the girl she would train her to be her nurse. The narrator sees her mother’s enthusiasm for her – her now eldest child – as being duller than it was for this slave girl and for her dead older brother and sister.
Stories of ghosts are told and are introduced with the explanation that when the thermometer reaches 111 degrees in the laundry, her mother or father say it is time for a ghost story ‘so that we could get some good chills up our backs’. The narrator has read in the research ‘against ghost fear’ which was published by the Chinese Academy of Science, of ghost battlers who like her mother were ‘bold eaters’ and tells some of these tales.
The narrative moves on to how they as a family eat all sorts of food including skunk. She tells one of her mother’s stories about food, about eating a monkey, and this is one that she does not want to hear. It is about eating monkey brains and it is implied that this happened while it was still alive. The ‘curtain flaps’ of memory close mercifully, however, and she cannot remember the whole story.
The narrative cuts back to describe how her mother left the village not long after ‘the village crazy lady’ was stoned by the villagers who thought she was signalling to Japanese enemy planes. She left China in the winter of 1939, almost six months after the stoning, and arrived in New York in January 1940.
The narrative switches again to the narrator relating her visit to her parents as an adult. Her mother comes to talk to her while she is in bed. Her mother says they will not be going back to China and the narrator says that they have been saying this since 1949. Her mother replies it is now final as they received a letter yesterday from the villagers and they asked if it was alright that they had taken over their land. The last uncles have been killed, so only the narrator’s father can give this permission. He has written back to confirm this. Her mother says she now only wants to have her house full again with relatives with children and in-laws: ‘She prises open my head and my fists and crams into them responsibility for time, responsibility for intervening oceans.’
The narrator says to her how she is not poorly when she is away from ‘here’ and is not always watching for ghosts. She says she has found ‘ghost-free’ places in this country. Her mother replies that it is better that she stays away and calls her Little Dog (which is an endearment she has not used for years) and the world seems lighter.
Analysis – Chapter Three, ‘Shaman’
The complex mother-daughter relationship is given a central focus in this chapter as the bravery of the narrator’s mother, Brave Orchid, is returned to again and again while the narrator also makes it apparent that she is also overwhelmed by her. Brave Orchid is depicted as a warrior of her time and her daughter describes her with evident pride. At the same time, the mother is seen to be domineering and too ready to cram her head and fists with ‘responsibility’.