Saturday, April 29, 2006

A Pail of Oysters I

I finished reading A Pail of Oysters the day after the book arrived. I should mention that the copy I finally bought is a little water-stained and lacks a jacket, but it didn't cost me nearly as much as a lot of the copies that I've seen for sale (a quick check of one on-line book dealer shows copies selling from US$45 to US$290). One of the reasons for this is probably the relative scarcity of the book. As I mentioned previously, the story is that the KMT had some student spies steal copies of the book from libraries in the U.S. (I'm curious if anyone has any hard evidence for this story, though. I'm not doubting that this kind of thing happened; I'm just wondering if anyone has heard of any evidence that people from the KMT identified this particular book as one to systematically steal from U.S. libraries.)

Before I make my own comments about A Pail of Oysters in another post, I'll quote a few sources that summarize it or comment on it. I checked around the web and in some academic databases and didn't find much about this book. It doesn't get mentioned in any Asian Studies journals or Asia-related magazines that I have access to, and the only comments I could find in English-studies journals were two brief mentions in 1950s issues of the English Journal (one was an article about using literature to teach American schoolchildren about other cultures, and the other was a one-paragraph review of the book).

Gale's Contemporary Authors Online has some contemporary reviews of the book that praised it:
In A Pail of Oysters Sneider again drew upon his first-hand experience in the Far East to write a novel about the political problems of that area. A more serious book than Teahouse, A Pail of Oysters was described by Margaret Parton in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review as "a serious and sometimes tragic story of a sad and troubled country." Set on the island of Formosa, where the defeated Nationalist Chinese government fled after the takeover of mainland China by the communists, the novel examines the corruption and injustices of the Nationalist government. "For anyone who has served as a correspondent with the Nationalists," wrote Gordon Walker in the Christian Science Monitor, "it sounds realistic and generally accurate." Pat Frank in Saturday Review thought the novel "combines beauty of expression, originality of thought, and contemporary historical importance; it is a bright light thrust into the infected peritonium of Formosa, into a region murky with propaganda."
I should note that Christina Klein described Saturday Review as a more left-leaning publication for middlebrow Americans, as compared with a magazine like Reader's Digest. My guess is that if Reader's Digest had a review of the book (did they do book reviews?), it wouldn't have been as complimentary.

On the web, the speech by Keelung Hong that I mentioned in a previous post has this short summary of the book, including some background on its writing:
It describes not just the foibles of confused Americans out of their depths across the Pacific, but accounts of KMT terror, including the shooting of the character based on the interpreter Ed Paine recommended to Vern Sneider. The book opens with a KMT patrol seizing oysters gathered by Taiwanese coast dwellers. Sneider makes very vivid the terror in which Taiwanese lived in the late 1940s, the oppression of KMT bandit-troops, the massacre of 2-28, and also makes clear the common Taiwanese views that what land reform was really about was breaking up any Taiwanese power bases.
And a summary of the book that I found on a booklist at Forumosa has this to say:
This is a fictional story, but the tale might as well be real to a Taiwanese. The story starts in near Lukang when KMT soldiers steal the god from a family and he is sent to bring it back. Much of the story focuses around an American newsman stationed in Taipei and how he learns Nationalist Taiwan is not what it seems. The true story behind the fiction is that Sneider met Ed Paine, an eye witness to the 228 massacre and Paine hooked Sneider up with his interpreter. The history is fuzzy, the places are not where they should be, but the story is more an allegory of 50's Taipei with the dreaded race track and deaths. This book is now considered rare following years of KMT student spies stealing it from libraries.
I don't know enough about 1950s Taipei to judge the accuracy of book's descriptions, but it does give a good feeling of what the city might have been like back then, with its descriptions of both main roads like South Chungking Road, where you would find places like "Cave's Book Store and the Bank of Formosa", and some of the small alleyways and fetid apartments where many poorer people lived. It's possible, though, that Sneider spent more time in Taipei and thus his descriptions of the countryside are a bit more sketchy and superficial.

I have more to say about the book in another post.

[Update, 3/2/2007: According to the March 11, 1954 issue (pdf) of The Grosse Pointe News of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, A Pail of Oysters was selected by the Notable Books Committee of the American Library Association as one of the 50 books "of the previous year which it considers meritorious in terms of literary excellence, factual correctness and sincerity and honesty of presentation" (10). Interesting...]


Joshua Samuel Brown said...

Good Post, man. I've been asked by a young Taipei journalism student to mention other works of fictions written in English about Taiwan. I suspect he was asking about things in a more light-hearted vein (such as what I typically write), but perhaps this will get him thinking...

Nicholas Clifford said...

A question about Pail of Oysters. From 1955-56 I lived in Taibei, stationed there with the US Navy. The 228 affair was a matter of general knowledge at least among Americans, and one of my friends lent me a novel dealing with the massacre. Like an idiot, I left it lying on my bed one day when I went off to work, and when I returned the book had disappeared, never be seen again. (This was in a house where seven or eight of us lived on Zhongshan Beilu (san duan).) I think that Pail of Oysters might have been that book -- I've been trying to run down the title for years, and would be grateful if anyone could tell me whether my description sounds correct.

Jonathan Benda said...

Could be--while the book isn't only about 228 (it's more about the White Terror period), 228 does figure in there. Also, as far as I know it's the only American novel from that time that's set in martial-law Taiwan.

Jonathan Benda said...

By the way, a new edition of A Pail of Oysters will be coming out soon as an ebook (for Kindle), published by Camphor Press. I wrote the introduction to it, based on archival work and an interview with Vern Sneider's widow. The book should also be coming out in print later on this year.

James Weitz said...

This is a gem of a book, but was overlooked because it was critical of a U.S. Cold War ally during the McCarthy Era. I was moved by the story to write an article about it that helps tourists enjoy the island while having some historical understanding of Taiwan's experience enduring the misrule of authoritarian government, and its transformation to the relatively wealthy and free nation it is today. Perhaps someone will be interested: