“My name is Henrietta S. Robertson. That’s my English name… My Chinese name is Ming-Mei.”
As the child of members of the Interior Alliance Mission, Henrietta has grown up between two cultures: English and Chinese. From the age of six she was sent to boarding school on a mountain in the Jiangxi Province, where four years later she remains as a small, pale, lonely girl.
For a girl as young as ten, Etta has a big imagination. She decides that God has called her to be a prophetess, and encourages the other girls in Dormitory A to join her in a Prophetess Club. This results is Etta getting into all sorts of trouble as she naively goes about inventing prophecies; all the while the Second Sino-Japanese War gets closer and closer to their mountain sanctuary.
Told mostly from Etta’s point of view, In a Land of Paper Gods is a hilarious historical novel about a young girl’s innocence. A large part of the story is about the missionary school rather than the ongoing war, therefore the focus is on Etta’s interpretation of the bible and her understanding of the differences between Western Christian and Chinese culture. However, once America joins the war effort, it is shockingly quick how the tale can go from humorous to heartbreaking.
The other character who plays a large part in this novel is Muriel, a dorm aunty, whom Etta regards highly. Muriel wanted to be a missionary but instead has found herself working at the Lushan school, keeping an eye on the ten and eleven year old girls. Although most of the book is written in Etta’s first person narrative, Rebecca Mackenzie has also included the occasional diary entry from Aunty Muriel. Since these are so few, it is not clear what their purpose is, as the story could easily continue without them.
Despite being an historical novel, In a Land of Paper Gods focuses less on fact and more on the impact the times had on a young girl. It is interesting to see the character development of Etta as she goes from a naughty, attention-seeking schoolgirl, to a young woman who must fend for herself. All the while she has her belief in God to resort to for explanations about the world she is living in. The reader also witnesses the growth of a relationship between Aunty Muriel and Etta. To begin with it is that of an adult and child, however it ends with them being equals in their suffering.
In a Land of Paper Gods is a pleasure to read. It is comically entertaining to begin with as the reader grows to love the characters, particularly mischievous Etta. It is hard to put the book down due to pure delight of the storyline, yet when the story turns darker it is just as difficult to put down, as we want to find out if the characters are going to be okay.
For some people, the Christian content will not mean anything, however it is possible to enjoy the novel without a religious background. For those, like myself, who do have a Christian upbringing, this aspect makes the story even better. Readers may recognize themselves or of their childhood in Etta, particularly her understanding of the bible.
Overall I loved this book. I was not sure what to expect, and have often found historical novels set in China to be rather dull. Therefore I was pleasantly surprised to discover how good this book was. I encourage others to read In a Land of Paper Gods, and I look forward to reading what Mackenzie writes next.
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon