Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Special Guest Post from Pamela Binnings Ewen

(I loved Pamela Binnings Ewen's book The Moon in the Mango Tree so much that I asked her to write a guest post for The Friendly Book Nook, and decided to post it here as well. The subject matter of the book and the many issues it touches upon are endlessly fascinating to me. I hope you'll read this book. Pop on over to the The Friendly Book Nook for a chance to win a copy of the book that the publisher graciously provided. And please share your thoughts!)

Hi Amy. Thanks for including me in your blog! I hope that your readers will love The Moon in the Mango Tree and the heroine, my grandmother, Barbara Perkins. As you know, I was very close to her and this book includes stories that she told all my life of her time in Siam (now known as Thailand) with my grandfather, who was a medical missionary at first, and later on, a royal physician in Bangkok. Barbara Perkins was a fascinating woman—a suffragette, beautiful, smart, talented—trained to sing grand opera. But she gave up her dreams in 1919 for her husband’s.

It wasn’t until she passed away that I found her letters and journals that revealed the secrets of the woman underneath, a part of my grandmother that I’d never known. The grandmother I knew was always laughing; she was magical and hid that darker side. She was so very young when she traveled across the globe with my grandfather to Siam, believing that they would live in Bangkok, a large exotic city where she could continue singing. So to find that the church had actually assigned them to an isolated mission in the northern jungles was a shock, to say the least. She wasn’t the typical missionary, by any means. The Moon in The Mango Tree is a love story, but also it’s the story of a woman struggling to find her place in the world, to find faith and meaning and purpose in life. Bret Lott put it well when he described this book as a tale of love, adventure, faith, and the clash of desire and duty.

The surprise that I found in her letters was the longing to sing that she kept inside as she began to follow my grandfather’s journey through life. In the beginning, in 1919, at a time when women were close to winning the vote, but were not yet allowed even to serve on juries, the idea of following her own dream, a career in music, was not a practical choice. She was from a large, close knit, traditional family and she loved my grandfather, Harvey Perkins very much. When she wept on her mother’s shoulder for the loss of her musical career, her mother’s answer was that the choice was Harvey’s to make—it was his career, his decision, and she was his wife. “Grow up, Barbara,” is the way she put it, as most mothers would have done in that day. “Do you think that you can feed a family with music…Your duty is to be a good wife and support his decisions.”

So in 1919, as much as she loved Harvey, she really did not have the opportunity to choose between love and her career. Today, women are free to choose because of women like Barbara almost a hundred years ago who marched for women’s rights, and who fought tradition, custom, and established thinking to have that right. Just the freedom to make the choice is the pivotal point, regardless of which direction we choose to take, because today we can find meaning and purpose in so many different ways.

The 1920’s was a dazzling decade of change. Barbara grew during this period, and finally she reached for that lodestar that always danced just ahead, her dream to sing. In her letters I found more than the dutiful wife who followed her husband to Siam. I found a free spirit, joyful, optimistic, seeking faith, enchanted with the world as she found it, but conflicted because of her longing for something of her own, to live her own life outside of Harvey’s shadow. Near the end of the decade, I found a woman alone in Paris, Lausanne, and Rome, where she resumed her singing career, and where—at last—she faced the real and excruciating choice, and this time the choice was hers to make.

As a lawyer for twenty-five years in a large international law firm I have seen woman facing this choice between families and career many times, each with different and complicating circumstances. Many of us are forced in one direction or the other by circumstances—maybe for financial reasons, or emotional ones, or because of a certain drive and ambition, or many others. But our choices today are no longer limited by tradition and custom, and today we have the freedom to live however we choose, although the thing that I have come to believe is that almost all important choices run the risk of losing something that we love, some sacrifice.

It’s interesting to me that despite the doors that are open for women now, despite the fact that women have every opportunity to reach the summit of their professions today, the most recent U.S. census shows that more and more women are choosing to stay home, or return home, to raise their children. Sixty Minutes recently did a story on this issue—Leslie Stahl asking the question—could it really be that this generation of women, the first to achieve success without having to fight for it, is now walking away, willingly, and without regrets? Opting out?

Harvard Business School did a survey not long ago and found that just 38% of its female graduates in the child-raising years were now in the work-place full time. And Paula Zahn asked the big question on CNN – “Why are more women now choosing family over the workplace, and will the trend continue?

My grandmother’s choice in Rome all those years ago is one answer to that question. In The Moon in the Mango Tree, your readers may hate her choice, or love it, Amy. But either way, I’ll bet they understand it! Regards to all your readers – I’d love to hear what they think! Pamela

Post a Comment

Thank you for taking the time to comment! I appreciate hearing your thoughts.