Ties That Bind, Ties That Break
By Lensey Namioka Thorndike Press - Large Print, (2003)
Genre: Young Adult, Historical Fiction
Reviewed by Anna Dogole - December 22, 2003
The practice of foot binding has a long and contentious history. For centuries, Chinese women were purposely crippled by having their feet forced into tight little balls. This was done when the women were very young, and it began by pushing their toes toward the ball of their foot, and tightly binding them into place. Only their big toes were left free. Over time their feet were permanently deformed. Ostensibly, the reason for this practice was that tiny feet were prized in China as a sign of beauty. Bound feet were also a sign of social standing as women with bound feet could not easily walk, and therefore could not do manual labor. Therefore, only peasants left the feet of their daughters unbound. The practice of foot binding began to go out of fashion in the late 1890's, and it was officially banned by the government of the new Republic of China in 1911. Nonetheless the practice continued, albeit on a small scale, well into the 1940's.
In Lensey Namioka's memorable novel, Ties That Bind, Ties That Break, she explores the practice of foot binding, and the changing role of women in the China of the early twentieth century. Tao Ailin, the main character in this book, was born into this turbulent and changing world. The story is preceded by a prologue that shows Ailin, at age 19, as a happily married woman. So, you know the ending of the story before you even begin it. The enjoyment in reading this book is found in discovering how the Ailin develops into this mature and self-confident woman...
The third daughter born into the Tao family, Ailin is headstrong and spoiled by her doting father. The story starts in 1911, when Ailin is barley five years old, with her engagement to Liu Hanwei, a boy not much older than herself. With her marriage arranged, the women of the family decide that it is time for Ailin to have her feet bound, but she refuses and her father indulges her wish. When the Liu's learn that Ailin's feet are not to be bound they break off the marriage arrangements as she is now considered unsuitable as a marriage partner.
Later, when Ailin begs to go to school like her brothers, her father again indulges her and she is allowed to attend the MacIntosh School, which is an American missionary school.
When her father dies suddenly, Ailin's well ordered and indulgent life is horribly disrupted. With her father's death, Ailin's uncle becomes head of the family and he is not so willing to indulge her whims. He refuses to continue paying her tuition at the MacIntosh School, and he is unwilling to support her. Due to her unbound feet, it is impossible to arrange a marriage for her with someone of their class. So her uncle gives her three choices - become a concubine, marry a peasant, or become a nun! None of these options are to Ailin's liking, so she creates a fourth option. Turning her back on her family, Ailin takes a job as a governess for an American missionary family. Her actions are as shameful to her family as was her decision not to have her feet bound, and her uncle is certain that she will disgrace the family even further. Ailin, however, is determined to succeed in life on her own terms, and she is willing to pay whatever cost is necessary to do so.
From her earliest days, Ailin has led an unconventional life, defying the age-honored customs of her family and the society in which she lives. When she takes a job with the American's the break with her past is complete, and she knows that she can never go back to living in her family's compound. For better or worse, the decision she made at the age of five, not to allow her feet to be bound, has dictated the course her life is to take. In the end, she will have to travel halfway around the world before she finds a place where she can make a home for herself, and where her unbound feet are seen as an asset and not a liability.
Ties That Bind, Ties That Break is a memorable and engrossing story. Although written for the young adult audience, this coming of age story will intrigue readers of all ages. The story follows Ailin from the age of five, until she is in her twenties. It emphasizes how her strength of will and moral fortitude allowed her to defy convention and make her own way in the world. Well-written and passionate, Ties That Bind, Ties That Break gives the reader a fascinating glimpse into middle-class family life in China during the early days of the Republic of China.
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