This novel follows the life of Li-yan, a girl born to a poor tea-picking Akha ethnic family in the mountainous region of China near the Thai border. Springwell, their tiny hamlet is very isolated and the Akha superstitions and traditions remain very strong even in 1988, when the novel begins.
Li-Han’s mother, the village midwife and herbal medicine expert, decided that her daughter will follow her in that profession. Li-han’s first trip to deliver a baby with her mother, turns into a disaster, when perfectly healthy twins are born and have to be immediately killed because of a Akha superstition which deems twin births as being very unlucky.
Akha is horrified at the murders of the healthy infants and tries to prevent their murder after which shefeels shame at her weakness and her defiance of tradition. Her mother, while mad, is understanding. She gives Li-han a secret plot of very ancient tea trees that have been passed down through the female line of the family for generations. The land and trees are rumored to be useless, but her mother insists they are a treasure that should remain secret.
As Li-han grows older she becomes the first in her family to attend school, and there she is recognized by her teacher as being gifted. The teacher enables her to continue her education by attending a high schools in a larger town. She is scheduled to take the test for university, but her hormones and love for a schoolmate get in the way.
Li-han soon discovers she is pregnant. However the boy she loves (and her family hates) has already left to find work in Thailand, not realizing she is pregnant. Her mother helps keep the pregnancy secret and with her heart breaking, Li-han leaves the infant girl who is born at an orphanage in a nearby city.
When her boyfriend does finally return, they are married, and quickly head to the orphanage to retrieve their baby girl, only to discover she has been adopted by a couple from America. Heartbroken they make the long trek to Thailand where her husband says he can get work.
It soon becomes evident that her family’s assessment of Li-han’s new husband was correct; he is lazy, and starts using drugs. Li-han escapes to return home with her husband in pursuit, but he is killed by a tiger trying to save her life.
This is only the first part of Li-han’s story, there much more to come in the novel, including a sudden spike in tea prices, her lost daughter growing up in the US, and a new profession and life for Li-han.
The novel is broad; spanning years from the 1980’s to the present, and geography from rural mountainous China, to the wealthy urban centers of modern day China and America. The storyline is dramatic and engaging and immerses the reader into a relatively unknown ethnic culture and the world of tea, its growing, its processing, and its place in the high-end world economy. It is well worth a read.
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