In The Bonesetter’s Daughter, Amy Tan tells the story of women through the generations, about their voiceless-ness and helplessness and how they overcome it. The story also throws light on cultural issues that Chinese women and children of Chinese origin face in America.
The protagonist Ruth is not one of those strong, will-get-what-I-want sort of women – not exactly admirable. Understandably, considering her eccentric mother, she has trouble trusting and communicating with the people she loves.
Synopsis: Ruth is a ghost writer who lives with her long-term boyfriend (Art) and his two children from an earlier marriage. Ruth’s mother LuLing seems to be getting more muddled every day and is exhibiting signs of dementia. While caring for her mother, Ruth finds a bunch of papers where her mother has penned down her story – the true version. Ruth gets these pages translated and learns about her mother’s life and about her grandmother Precious Auntie and comes to understand her mother and forgive her.
Against the backdrop of a small town in China, culture, superstition and forgotten arts like bonesetting and ink making, LuLing and Precious Auntie’s stories get revealed. Precious Auntie was a bonesetter’s daughter, and due to a series of unfortunate events is unable to claim her daughter as her own. Having lost her power of speech, she is rather helpless and powerless to have a hand in the fate of her daughter. The motif repeats with Precious Auntie leaving her daughter a long letter that explains how her life turned out the way it did.
Although the book is named for Precious Auntie, the bonesetter’s daughter, the most interesting stories are those of LuLing and her sister GaoLing. Their adventures in China and escape to America overcoming great odds, is a great story.
Written communication is the link between all three women – both LuLing and Precious Auntie use the written word to pass on their life story to their daughter. While Precious Auntie writes to pass on what she knows is the truth, LuLing writes to make sure she doesn’t forget. In telling her daughter the real story, she ensures that her story is not forgotten.
What is jarring in the story line is Ruth’s cavalier attitude towards all the writing that her mother hands to her. Being a writer, I would expect her to show more respect for the written word, whether it’s in English or Chinese. I also would have liked her better if she had stood up more forcefully to Art and his daughters, but then I guess the story would have been an entirely different one.