I don’t use Twitter very much, but when I do I am sure to look for any posts related to “Changsha.” That is how I found the book Healing, Romance, and Revolution: Letters from an American Nurse in 1926 China. Harriet Smith was a nurse in Changsha, Hunan, China for several years. This book only covers one year when she actively wrote to her mother and best friend regularly.
Since I live in Changsha, I found the book to be very interesting. It is still common for my husband and I to be stopped and asked for pictures when we go downtown, yet reading this book showed me that foreigners have a long tradition here in Changsha. “Hat” worked at a mission hospital and nursing school during her years here, but there were also universities, a YMCA, and other foreign owned business here in Changsha during that time. Hat was hardly an anomaly back then and had plenty of other foreigners to keep her company. I really enjoyed reading about the awful weather we have here and familiar places like Yuelu (“Yali” back then) mountain and Orange Island. There are some very interesting passages about Chiang Kai-shek and the clashes between the Communists and the Kuomintang during that time.
While I enjoyed the book for the most part, it does have significant issues. First of all, the title. The title is way, way too long. It tells you that this book is self-published because there is no way that a real publisher would let a title like that out the door. I know it seems like a weird thing to harp on, but since I am in China most of my books are on Kindle and the title is too long to see in the library or across the top of the page. It is obnoxiously long and amateurish. Secondly, I think anyone not living in Changsha would have a hard time finishing it. I finished it because I have a vested interest in a book about the city I live. But even I found myself plodding through the second half. The book isn’t incredibly long (only about two hundred pages), but it feels like it is much longer. It took me about two months to finish when a book that length should only take a few days. I found myself looking for the original documents that were included just so I could skip some pages because that information was completely irrelevant to the story. They are great primary sources if you are researching this time and this place, but for anyone else it doesn’t add to the story. In fact, there are times when she just goes on and on about pointless things (like the rugs! She just drones on multiple times about buying the stupid rugs) that should have been cut out. However, there was a lot more about her I wanted to know that wasn’t included. What was she even doing in Changsha, China? What happened to her afterwards? Also, the end-notes make it hard to read. There are many people and places whom readers need more information about, which are included in the end-notes, but having to go back and forth from the book to the end notes is frustrating. Also, some of Hat’s stories are without any context, like just what was going on politically and her sudden engagement. This book would have been much better as a novel and not just a collection of letters. The book should have been novelized both for a better reading experience and to appeal to a wider audience. The letters should have just been given away free on the website or included as an appendix as primary sources for researchers.
Long story, short: I did enjoy the book, but only because I have a personal connection to Changsha. I don’t think anyone who doesn’t live here would be able to finish it. The book needs to be completely rewritten as a novel in order to appeal to a wider audience because it really is fascinating, but frustrating to read in this format. I’m giving it 3 stars because I live in Changsha; for anyone else it is probably just a 2.