Posts Tagged ‘Oswald Wynd’

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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