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My Experience with Lisa See’s Novels
On Gold Mountain is a family biography written by novelist Lisa See. You may be familiar with See’s novels, which are typically set in China or elsewhere in East Asia.
I read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, set in Japan, years ago, before I lived in Japan. The plot centers on women who used a sort of secret written language to maintain friendships despite being confined to their homes.
I didn’t feel moved to read anymore of her books until I visited Shanghai in 2017, when I read Shanghai Girls. It is AMAZING! Her descriptions are spot on, and they exactly matched what I saw in China. I eventually read its companion novel, Dreams of Joy, parts of which are set in California and Communist China, and I enjoyed all three immensely.
Sadly, I was disappointed by See’s latest book, The Island of Sea Women. I was intrigued by the premise, but See just doesn’t have the same grasp of Korean culture.
My disappointment with The Island of the Sea Women put me off reading See’s memoir even more.
My Experience with Lisa See’s Memoir
I owned a copy of On Gold Mountain for a long time, but the book just gathered dust on my shelf. This book has a scholarly look; the print is small and presentation isn’t that appealing. This time around, I borrowed a Kindle library book, and it was a whole new experience. So for this one, ignore the paper book; this is definitely one to get on Kindle.
The readability of this book surprised me. See’s skills as a novelist are evident, and she uses many techniques, such as extensive dialogue and exposition of characters’ thoughts and feelings. If See was using access to family documents or family reminisces, she doesn’t directly state it. I honestly think she started with the documents that she had, and let her imagination work from there.
I enjoyed myself so much, I didn’t care whether she strictly followed the rules of nonfiction.
For me, that’s saying a lot.
The heart of the story centers on See’s great grandfather, Fong See, who came to the United States as a railroad worker in the late 19th century and survived decades of anti-Chinese legislation and built a retail empire along the way. See shows that the immigration narrative is about more than making a success in the new country. Although Fong incredibly married a Caucasian woman in the U.S., throughout his life he felt the pull of China, and in fact built both a family compound and a hotel there, which was occupied first by his third wife, and later by his concubine (read the book to find out all about how that came about).
See doesn’t hold back on the personal details either. We find out about the active and varied sex life of her great grandfather. She also shares her uncle’s crush on his half-aunt, who was about his age.
On Gold Mountain reads like a Ken Follett or James Michener epic in their finest hours. If you have never tried Follett’s Pillars of the Earth series, or Michener’s epic novels (my favorite is Chesapeake), check them out.
Note about reading in China, in case you ever visit:
Because the Chinese rigidly control the media and Internet access, I was impressed with the selection of English books about China available in their bookstores. My Whispernet access on my Kindle worked perfectly: I could download anything on American Amazon. When I visited Vietnam, another Communist country with a lot of government control, I had to be on my (fancy) hotel’s wifi for it to work.