Monday, October 01, 2012

Reader's Diary #874- Thornton Wilder: Chefoo, China


Photo by Carl Van Vechten
I love Yellowknife, I really do. But Debbie and I are nomadic by nature and we're heading into our 5th year here— the longest we've ever lived in one town since we've been married. No, we're not planning on leaving anytime soon (with the exception of travel), as we want to give our kids some stability. Our daughter has already lived in 4 towns, our son in 3, both having lived in 3 provinces/territories. When the kids head off to university, some 10 or so years from now, Debbie and I will travel-teach our way around the world. We're content with this plan, for the most part, but on stressful days (yes, like everyone else, we have stressful days) 10 years seems like a long time. What if, we think, we took the kids and moved to say, Brunei? They have international schools there, right?

In "Chefoo, China," American author Thornton Wilder recalls his time in an international school. Though as it's set in the early 1900s, it's not exactly any way to gauge what such schools today are like. To be honest, my real reason for choosing today's story is because Amazing Race 21 started yesterday, with the racers heading first to China. I remembered that Margot at Joyfully Retired reviewed this story for Short Story Monday back in December, so I figured it was worth a read. I'm normally reluctant to read biographical pieces for SSM as I consider short stories to be fiction, but at Story of the Week, where The Library of America presented this story, Wilder's memoir is described as blending memory and fact with fictional flourishes. Fictional flourishes are good enough for me.

"Chefoo, China" is an interesting story from a historical point of view. Set in a school run by Anglican missionaries, Wilder's experiences sound similar to many school tales set in similar time frames back here in North America. Strict teachers, emphasis on religion, it's not at all surprising unless you're expecting to learn much about China. The children boarded at the school, with other international students, and were not allowed to visit the local town. It's like staying at an all-inclusive resort and expecting to experience the real Cuba. You won't.

However, there's one boy who is determined to sneak out. At first it seems as if it's all about the audacity of the escape, the glory of rebellion, but there are hints that he comes to appreciate the forbidden culture. Unfortunately, it's only hints we get as the story ends super abruptly. Apparently this story was found among Wilder's papers from the 60s and was part of an unfinished memoir. I have many problems with reading unfinished excerpts, no matter how compelling they are (and this one is mildly compelling). Why didn't Wilder finish it? Was he unhappy with it? What would have followed? Reading this is too stressful. I'm moving to Brunei.

(Did you write a post for Short Story Monday? If so, please leave a link in the comments below.)

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