“Soon they will be hungry. We shall all be hungry.”
“Don’t be silly,” I said impatiently. “None of you has gone hungry so far. At least, not very hungry. And there’s enough food for two days.”
“Where will you get food after that, Lu-tsi?”
I gave the only answer I could think of, the answer Miss Prothero had always given me whenever I asked such a question. “The Lord will provide,” I said confidently, and turned away to go down to the kitchen, thinking of what I would have to do that day in Chengfu, and hoping that at least the Lord would make sure I did not get caught while I was busy providing.
Author: Madeleine Brent
Synopsis: As China’s Boxer rebellion begins endangering “foreign devils,” orphaned missionary kid Lucy Waring returns to England with a secret: just before departure, she was secretly married to an English prisoner named Nick Sabine, who was scheduled for execution the day after the wedding. When Lucy is tracked, threatened, and her rooms ransacked, however, she can’t help wondering—did Nick really die, or is he trying to kill her? And if she was truly widowed, who wants her dead?
Notes: The historical romance genre has never been a particular favorite of mine, but that may be because I’ve read the wrong type (i.e., too many bonnets.) Madeleine Brent—otherwise known as Peter O’Donnell, British mystery writer—caught my attention right away with teenage Lucy and her struggling mission home in China. This is the first Brent/O’Donnell novel I’ve read, but it shouldn’t be the last.
Lucy Waring is a unique heroine: English, but orphaned so young in China that she grew up generally thinking of herself as Chinese. With the head missionary ill and all support cut off, Lucy finds herself responsible for the abandoned children who live at the mission, and she’s absorbed enough of the culture to wonder, pragmatically, why the missionary would never sell off the grown girls as concubines when they usually ended up as such anyway. Lucy's English nature asserts itself only in musical taste and in wondering how Chinese parents—usually fathers—abandon baby girls to die.
Of course, an English stranger shows up, and the hardworking, Chinese-thinking Lucy finds herself plunged into a classic European Gothic plot. The juxtaposition makes for some amusing moments, especially when she returns to her native country and must live with the all-too-easily shockable gentry. Riddles and mysterious old manors baffle her, as do the restrictive rules and clothing; wild coincidences surprise but hardly faze her, and she works her way out of difficulty after difficulty with naive but effective logic. All the while, of course, she wonders again and again about the stranger she married: his roughness, his secrets, his one kindness, and “the laughing devils in his eyes.”
I suppose it’s all predictable enough, but I’ve never been the predicting type, and the absurd old-fashioned foreshadowing of the “Little did I know” type had the intended effect of keeping me turning pages when I probably should have been doing other things. It’s outdated stylistically, but it works perfectly well.
I'm not schooled enough in the subtleties of various prejudices to speak much of how well the book would hold up to modern standards of multicultural portrayal. Brent is writing about the rural, uneducated China of more than a hundred years ago, and doing so in the early seventies. The reader raised in the Christian-influenced West will be horrified by the Chinese practices of infanticide and cruel corporal punishment, but will also sympathize with Lucy against the English gentry's arrogant demeaning of the ways of the poor. Whether the English had any right to the "tiger's eyes" lost in a poverty-stricken country is probably a fair question, but "finders keepers" has been around for a while, and the wealthy, daring Englishman of more than a hundred years ago would almost certainly have presumed such a right.
As with most romances, historical or otherwise, the ending was unhesitatingly satisfactory. The book was a pleasant read overall, if hyper-dramatic in the fashion of old Gothic mysteries, and the heroine is particularly intriguing as she's both mentally independent and emotionally artless, untouched by feminism. Her story makes a good beach or sick-day companion, and the rest of the Brent novels seem likely to follow suit.
Recommendation: Read it for interest, relaxation, and a heroine with an uncommon perspective.