Archive for the ‘Wynd, Oswald’ Category

Black Fountains by Oswald Wynd ~ 1947. This edition: Doubleday & Company, 1947. Hardcover. 374 pages.

What a mixed response I have to this novel! It’s a definite period piece, a product of a very particular time and place, written by a person with a lot of insider knowledge of his topic, and there are a lot of things going on which influence the narrative.

I had high expectations for readability, having enjoyed the two prior Oswald Wynd novels I’d serendipitously bumped into, The Eyes Around Me and The Ginger Tree. I thought that Black Fountains would meet that standard, in particular since it won a $20,000 literary prize (the Doubleday Prize) in 1947.

Perhaps the novelty of the origins and life experience of the author plus that of his fictional protagonist had something to do with that prize. Wynd was Scottish by heritage but was born in and grew up in Japan as a child of missionaries; the novel was partially written while Wynd was held under the Japanese in a Malayan prison camp in 1944-45. The protagonist of the novel is a young upper-class Japanese woman who has just returned to her homeland after five years of study in the United States. The story takes place between 1938 and 1945.

Here is some of what Kirkus had to say in 1947:

(A)n exceedingly interesting and often revealing book, introducing a new talent, immature and amateurish at times, but fresh and exciting in much of what he has to say. Here – in terms of one American-educated Japanese girl’s reactions, fears, hates, loves, is a Japan we do not know- the Japan that accepted the bonds of belonging while hating what Japan had come to stand for. Wynd was a prisoner of the Japanese; he was able to see both sides. The story opens in the Fall of 1938, as Omi, returning to Japan after five years of freedom, attempts to uproot what holds her to America and to find herself again in a Japan she dreads and fights. She finds within herself conflicts she had not dreamed existed- she resists her parents’ determination to gain submission and acceptance, both of ways of thought and ways of living. Wynd has used a sort of stream of consciousness device to take the reader into the minds of his characters, while paralleling this with narrative, dialogue, description, which forward his story. Omi resists – and then takes on her own terms the plan for marriage with Ishii; she finds unsuspected richness – and equally unplumbed doubts in that marriage . . . one gets the various points of view within Japan itself- the manipulation of propaganda instruments – one has almost a sense of seeing the machinery of their minds in action.

The character of Omi in Black Fountains never really comes to life even to the same degree that of Mary of The Ginger Tree did – and that was one of my observations when I read that book – the characters are just a shade remote. So in this earlier novel we have an attempted depiction of the innermost thoughts and feelings of a Japanese woman being written by a non-Japanese man, a challenge to pull off in any context. It’s an imaginative approach, and we can see where Wynd is going with it early on, but it doesn’t ever really fly. Dramatic and frequently horrible things happen all around and to Omi, but I found myself watching with  a lack of full engagement. It is just too contrived, the author’s “the Japanese are different from the rest of us” bias (he was writing this in prison camp, after all) is very evident from the very first page.

If you pushed me into a corner and asked me to give a two-word summation of Black Fountains, I’d have to say that the term that keeps popping up is “propaganda novel”. It’s quite openly an attempt at analyzing “the Japanese mind” in regards to the occurrences during the war, and the subsequent Allied Occupation, and how accurately Wynd pulls it off is open to question. He frequently slips into lecture mode, exposition falling from Omi’s lips in a way that doesn’t feel quite natural.

Parts of this novel are very well done, in particular the descriptions of the various settings; these truly come to life. It’s obvious that the author has a deep love of what is essentially his native country – he was born in Japan and spent his first eighteen years there – and a deep appreciation of many aspects of the people of the country.

Unfortunately, viewed strictly as a novel without considering the backstory of its writing, this one stumbles.

Worth reading? Yes, I think so, if read with the author’s background kept firmly in mind. Just don’t expect a masterpiece; it’s more of a curiosity piece. A competent enough first novel, but the author has not yet developed his full talents. In my opinion.

My rating: 5/10. A keeper, with the stated reservations.

Click to enlarge these dust jacket images, provided for more context.

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The Ginger Tree by Oswald Wynd ~ 1977. This edition: Harper Collins Perennial Classics, 2002. Paperback. 324 pages.

January 1903. Twenty-year-old Mary Mackenzie, a decidedly sheltered Edinburgh Presbyterian brought up in financially challenged upper-middle-class circumstances by a sternly religious widowed mother, is sailing to China to marry her betrothed, an English military attaché she has only met a few times. Mary will be “marrying up”; accepting Richard’s offer is seen as something of a marital coup in her social circle.

As the ship sails through troubled winter seas, Mary writes in her very private journal regarding the sea change occurring in her own attitudes and opinions, as she sheds first her uncomfortable corsets and then some of her previously unquestioned viewpoints on class distinctions and the quiet yet fervent jockeying for position among those seeking to move higher in the ranks.

Marry arrives at her destination, marries her passionless fiancé, bears a baby daughter and tries her best to fit into the rigidly structured community of British and European pseudo-exiles who have drawn ever closer together both physically and emotionally since the bloody Boxer Rebellion just a few years before.

With husband Richard off on a military mission, Mary uncomplainingly carries on with a life much more joyless and circumscribed than she had thought to find herself in. It is perhaps not particularly surprising that she falls into a brief yet passionate affair with a high ranking Japanese nobleman convalescing from injuries received while serving as a military officer in the Russo-Japanese War.

One short week of forbidden love has long-reaching consequences. Mary finds herself pregnant. Scandal ensues. The betrayed Richard casts her off – “puts her out”. The baby daughter will be sent to Richard’s mother back in England, while Mary will be returned to Edinburgh and whatever life she can make for herself under the care of her devastatingly appalled mother.

Then Mary skips out.

Slipping out of the hotel room where Richard has parked her while she awaits her passage “home”, Mary instead travels to Tokyo and sets herself up in a modest little house, all paid for by a previous money-gift from ex-lover Count Kentaro, who apparently feels a certain responsibility towards his Scottish fling, though he demonstrates no intention of otherwise recognizing or continuing their relationship.

A son is born and Mary revels in an unexpectedly joyful experience of second-chance motherhood, until the Count reappears, casually reignites the love affair, inspects the child, likes what he sees and arranges a parental kidnapping, leaving Mary distraught and socially isolated in her adopted homeland, as the British community is now completely closed to her as a result of her wayward ways.

How Mary remakes her life as a stranger in a strange land makes up the remainder of this rather tall tale, which is not quite as melodramatic as this description might make it sound. There is a deep sensitivity and substantial verisimilitude here, very likely formed by the author’s own experience as a son of Scottish missionaries, living in Japan from his birth in 1913 until 1932, when the family returned to Scotland. Wynd returned to Asia in WW II as a member of the British Army Intelligence Corps, and subsequently spent three years as a Japanese prisoner of war in Hokkaido.

Wynd’s timeline does not exactly match that of his heroine in this novel, but the depiction he gives of expatriates living amongst the Chinese and Japanese communities of the early 20th century up until the start of World War II is convincingly depicted and serves as a historically plausible backdrop to fictional Mary’s tale.

As for Mary Mackenzie, we leave her on board another ship in August, 1942, outbound from Japan, returning to the land of her birth and a possible reunion with her long-lost daughter.

This epistolary novel was a very good read, and it has reminded me of my other encounter with Oswald Wynd a few years ago, reading one of his thrillers written under the non-de-plume of Gavin Black. As The Ginger Tree most pleasurably did, The Eyes Around Me kept me absolutely engaged.

I do believe this will be a writer I will quest after in 2022. Most of his books are out of print, but his popularity was such that there are some copies still floating about, and I intend to search out as many as I can reasonably afford. I expect that I will find them very diverting.

My rating: 8.5/10

A point and a half docked because the detail fell off in the later years of Mary’s story, though understandably so. An awful lot of historical and dramatic ground was covered here.

Kudos to the writer for keeping this saga at a modest 324 pages. Some rather clever technique was shown here, hopping us through the story in ever-greater leaps towards the end, but still keeping it (fictionally) very believable.

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