Trademark Louise Erdrich: Humor

In the past few weeks, I have been binging on Louise Erdrich’s novels.

(Erdrich is the acclaimed Ojibwe author of so many books I can’t keep track–maybe 16 novels?   If you are unfamiliar with her work, here is a review of her latest novel by the New York Times. It serves as a good introduction to her work.)

These are the novels I have recently read (or re-read):

  • Love Medicine (1984)
  • Tracks (1988)
  • The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001)
  • The Plague of Doves (2008)
  • The Round House (2012)

Several years ago, I also read her Crown of Columbus, and I am now starting to read her Bingo Palace (1994).

It would be an understatement to say that I am a fan of her work. The woman is a literary goddess.  Each of her novels creates a world unto itself.  However, most of them are connected to each other as well.  She focuses on a small (fictional) area of North Dakota and many of the same families are featured in each work.   In terms of her style, each work is unique.  Nonetheless, certain themes and stylistic traits recur throughout her work.  Taken together, the combination of these traits add up to a distinct Erdrich voice or “trademark.”

In this short series, I want to focus on a few elements of her voice, the things that mark her as distinct. Today I am focusing on her sense of humor.  In general, I would not classify Erdrich as a comic writer.  Taken as a whole, her fiction veers more towards the lyrical, the tragic, or even magical.   However, her vision is consistently punctuated with episodes of broad comedy.  Often the comedy is physical, even slapstick.  The humor provides some relief from the sadness of much of her writing, but it also expresses her view of the world—one in which the tragic and the comic cannot be neatly separated.

One example of trademark Erdrich humor can be seen in her first novel, Love Medicine.  In this work, Lipsha Morrissey accidentally walks in on his grandfather having an adulterous tryst in the laundry room at the senior center with his old flame, Lulu Lamartine.  In the context of the entire work, Grandfather Nector Kashpaw’s yearning for Lulu is portrayed as poignant, sad, touching.  In this particular scene, though, the perspective is one of broad comedy:

“There they were. And he was really loving her up good, boy, and she was going hell for leather.  Sheets was flapping on the lines above, and washcloths, pillowcase, shirts was also flying through the air, for they was trying to clear out a place for themselves in a high-heaped but shallow laundry cart.  The washers and dryers was all on, chock full of quarters, shaking and moaning.” (196)

This was an awkward scene for Lipsha to witness, to say the least.  But the awkwardness turns to hilarity when a wig is added to the equation:

“The Lamartine wore a big curly light-brown wig.  Looked like one of them squeaky little white-people dogs.  Poodles they call them.  Anyway, that wig is what saved us from the worse. . . . Turned out, though, in the heat of the clinch, as I was trying to avert my eyes you see, the Lamartine’s curly wig jumped off her head.  And if you ever been in the midst of something and had a big change like that occur in the someone, you can’t help know how it devastates your basic urges.  Not only that, but her wig was almost with a life of its own.  Grandpa’s eyes were bugging at the change already, and swear to God if the thing didn’t rear up and pop him in the face like it was going to start something.  He scrambled up, Grandpa did, and the Lamartine jumped up after him all addled-looking.  They just stared at each other, huffing and puffing, with quizzical expressions.”  (197)

This sort of broad comedy intermingles with scenes of great sadness and even tragedy throughout her works.  We can see another example of her slapstick humor in her 2012 novel The Round House.  This novel focuses on the rape and attempted murder of the narrator’s mother (Geraldine).  The perpetrator is known, but cannot be punished by the legal system because of complex and blatantly unjust issues of jurisdiction on Native reservations.  Not surprisingly, the overall tone of this novel is serious, even grim.  Still, Erdrich manages to interject scenes of pure slapstick, such as this one, in which a teenage boy  named Cappy confesses to a Catholic priest that he has been having sex with his girlfriend—in the church basement.  The confession does not go as well as expected though.  Father Travis, an ex-Marine, was in excellent physical condition and had a temper.  Rather than forgiving Cappy, he explodes in anger and starts chasing him:

“There were arcane sounds—the slide of the priest’s window, the whispering back and forth—then the explosion.  Father Travis burst from the wooden door of the confessional and would have caught Cappy if he hadn’t rolled out from under the curtain and half crawled, half scrambled along the pew.  Father ran back, blocking the exit, but already Cappy had sprung past us, hurdling the pew toward the front of the church, landing on the seats with each bound in a breathtaking series of vaulting leaps that took him nearly to the altar.”  (232)

The ensuing chase scene lasts for three full pages of slapstick adventure reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote chasing the Road Runner.

“Cappy had those good shoes, but so, I noticed, did Father Travis.  He wasn’t running in sober clerical blacks but had perhaps been playing basketball or jogging before he dropped in to hear confessions.  The two sprinted hotly down the dusty gravel road that led from the church into town.  Cappy boldly crossed the highway and Father Travis followed.  Cappy cut through yards he knew well and disappeared.  But even in his cassock, which he’d hoisted and tucked into his belt, Father Travis was right behind him heading toward the Dead Custer Bar and Whitey’s gas station.  We marveled at Father’s pale thick-muscled calves blurring in the sun.” (233)

I am not a Catholic, but I am pretty sure that’s not how confession is supposed to work.

Certainly, Erdrich is not the only writer who combines humor and tragedy.  Many southern writers, for example, are famed for their tragic-comic vision.   William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor come to mind.  I think Erdrich’s humor is particularly broad, even cartoonish.  The combination of this slapstick humor with serious, even tragic, themes is one of the more striking elements of Erdrich’s voice.

I will discuss other elements of her voice in future posts.  Stay tuned!

erdrich-novels

The Piano Man

Writing about erotic love is hard.  One has to navigate so many obstacles: romantic clichés, pornography, cynicism, and the desire to sing Barry Manilow lyrics.  Writing about ghost lovers is even harder.   Is it possible for an author of realistic literary fiction to write about a character who believes herself to be in a romantic relationship with a dead man—and to do so without mocking the character?   Louise Erdrich does so in The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001).

erdrich_hs

The main character of The Last Report is Father Damien Modeste, a Catholic priest who serves the Ojibwe Indians on a North Dakota reservation named Little No Horse.  He has tended them faithfully for many decades and has earned their trust.  One thing his flock does not know about him, however, is that he is actually a woman named Agnes (a.k.a. Sister Cecilia). (I am not giving anything away here.  Readers know this from the beginning of the novel.)  Agnes has had a few romantic relationships in her life.  Perhaps the most passionate of them was with the spirit of Frederic Chopin.

The Last Report is a long and complex novel with many disparate strands.  Agnes’ erotic relationship to a dead composer is just one thread of this intoxicating book.  It is a strand I found compelling, though–maybe because I am learning to play the piano myself, or maybe because I find it easy to become deeply attached to a beloved author.  (I may have had an erotic dream about Chaucer when I was younger.)

As a very young woman, Agnes DeWitt becomes a nun and is called Sister Cecilia.  She takes her vows seriously and considers herself married to God.  God has some competition, though.  Her true love is music:

“She not only taught but lived music, existed for those hours when she could be concentrated in her being—which was half music, half divine light, only flesh to the degree she could not admit otherwise.  At the piano keyboard, absorbed into the notes that rose beneath her hands, she existed in her essence, a manifestation of compelling sound.”  (14)

Agnes empties her whole soul into her piano, especially when she plays Chopin.  It was “as though her soul were neatly removed by a drinking straw and siphoned into the green pool of quiet that lay beneath the rippling cascade of notes” (14).    Put simply, “Chopin’s spirit became her lover.  His flats caressed her.  His whole notes sank through her body like clear pebbles.  His atmospheric trills were the flicker of a tongue.   His pauses before the downward sweep of notes nearly drove her insane” (15).

Her relationship with Chopin is so real to her that she feels guilty about it.  After Agnes leaves the convent and receives a marriage proposal from Berndt Vogel, she tells him “that she must never marry again, for not only had she wed herself soul to soul with Christ, but she had already been unfaithful—her phantom lover the Polish composer—thus already living out too grievous a destiny to become a bride” (17).  Chopin, through his music, has become more real to her than anything else in her life.

To be clear, Agnes is not psychotic.  She is not pathetic.  She has simply realized that piano music is where she can best express the essence of herself.  In a very real sense, she finds herself in communion with Chopin through the music he composed a century earlier.   When she plays his music, he comes alive for her:

“There was the scent of faint gardenias—his hothouse boutonniere.  The silk of his heavy, brown hair.  A man’s sharp, sensuous drawing-room sweat.  His voice, she heard it, avid and light.  It was as though the composer himself had entered the room.  Who knows?  Surely there was no more desperate, earthly, exacting heart than Cecilia’s.  Surely something, however paltry, lies beyond the grave.  At any rate, she played Chopin” (16).

chopin
Frederic Chopin

Because she is able to summon him through his music, Chopin the man exists as a real lover for Agnes, one who provides erotic satisfaction.  Berndt Vogel realizes this truth about Agnes as he watches her play: “and as the songs Chopin invented were as much him as his body, so it followed Berndt had just watched the woman he loved [Agnes] make love to a dead man” (22).

I find Louise Erdrich an astonishing writer for many reasons.  One of them is her abililty to convey how the unseen world—be it the world of the spirit or the world of the imagination —is for some people more vivid and meaningful than the so-called “real world.”   I wish I could tell you in Three Easy Steps how Erdrich does it so well.  Certainly she relies on sensory detail and a varied sentence structure.  Mostly, though, I think it is her openness to the possibilities of the world.  She refuses to reduce the world to simple categories of real/not real, physical/not physical.  She sees fullness where others might see lack, magic where others see drabness.   If you have not read her books before, I recommend that you do.

 

 

Teaser Tuesday: Dear Committee Members

Schu_9780385538138_ap1_r1[1]
Julie Schumacher. Photo credit, Catherine Smith
Dear Carole:

This letter’s purpose is to provide the usual gratuitous language recommending a student, one Gunnar Lang, for a work-study fellowship.  Lang–a sophomore with a mop of blond dreadlocks erupting from the topic of his head like the yellow coils of an excess brain–tells me that he has applied, unsuccessfully, for this same golden opportunity three times and that this is his final attempt to satisfy our university’s endless requests for redundant documentation.  He needs a minimum of eight to ten hours of work-study per week–preferably in the library rather than the slops of food service.  Deny him the fellowship and he will undoubtedly turn his hand to something more lucrative, probably hawking illegal substances between the athletic facilities and the Pizza Barn.

This is a short excerpt from the novel Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher.  The novel is a satire of life in academia and would appeal to academics, especially those in the beleaguered departments of humanities.  The novel is written as a series of recommendation letters.  Fortunately for the readers, the main character, Jason Fitger, writes letters that are completely inappropriate and laugh-out-loud funny.  This is the funniest book that I have read in a long time.  It is also, as the best humor is, very sad.

Read it, all right?

This post is a contribution to  Teaser Tuesday is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of A Daily Rhythm.  Here are the rules.  And yes, I cheated by including four sentences rather than two.  Sue me.

Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
• Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Literary Pairings: Ng and Grenville

I would like to think that in the present climate of the United States, a brilliant Chinese-American man would not feel so painfully isolated, while a brilliant woman would not have to forego her medical career.

celeste ng
Celeste Ng

We learn from the first sentence of Celeste Ng’s novel Everything I Never Told You that Lydia, the beloved teenage daughter of Marilyn and James, is dead.  We do not, however, know how or why she died.  In order to understand what caused her death, we need to discover not only Lydia’s history, but also the history of her parents—and grandparents, too, for that matter.  As much as we Americans might like to think of ourselves as rugged individuals who create our own identities, our own lives, Ng reminds us that it is not so easy to escape our family histories.  That is true even if we are not aware of them.

Everything+I+Never+Told+You+-+Celeste+Ng

Lydia’s father James Lee is the son of impoverished Chinese immigrants who toiled ceaselessly to provide a good education for their son.  Their efforts pay off and James earns a Harvard Ph.D. in American history.  His academic success, however, is overshadowed by his lifelong feelings of isolation; he can never escape his feelings of inadequacy at being friendless, at never fitting in.  Because of these feelings, he desperately wants his children to be popular and feels personally stung when he notes their lack of social acceptance.

Lydia’s mother Marilyn has different yearnings.  She is a lovely, blond, white woman who blends into her landscape seamlessly.  She does not want to blend in, though.  She grew up in the 1950s, when women were bred to be cheerful homemakers.  (The present-day of this novel is set in 1977.) To make matters worse for Marilyn, her mother was a home economics teacher who thought Betty Crocker was a goddess.  Lydia, however, was a brainy woman with scientific leanings.  She fervently wanted to be a medical doctor and was on track to becoming one.  Her plans changed, though, when she became pregnant her junior year of college and dropped out to marry James and raise their children.  As Lydia became older, Marilyn funneled all of her frustrated ambitions into Lydia, determined that Lydia would have the medical career she was unable to achieve herself.

Ng’s portrayal of the mostly pain these characters carry in their hearts is touching and sad.  What makes the pain even worse (from my perspective) is that they remain unspoken.  It seems that Marilyn is unaware of her husband’s profound sense of isolation and intense yearning to fit in.  Conversely, James seems unaware of how unhappy Marilyn is to be living as a housewife instead of as a doctor.  These misunderstandings baffle me to a certain extent.  Do these two people never talk to each other?

It seems significant that Ng chose to set this novel in the late 1970s instead of the present day.  I would like to think that in the present climate of the United States, a brilliant Chinese-American man would not feel so painfully isolated, while a brilliant woman would not have to forego her medical career.  Does that mean the family would be happier overall?  Or would there just be different problems?

The conflicting desires of husband and wife remind me a little bit of the married couple William and Sal Thornhill of The Secret River.  (Click here to see my previous post about it.)  The Secret River is set in the late 1700s, when England sent convicts to what is now the country of Australia.  William was one of those convicts sent to Australia and was accompanied by his wife Sal and their children.  Sal wanted to get out of Australia and back to England as soon as they possibly could and let William know that in no uncertain terms.  He agreed that they would go back in five years.  Sal literally counted off the days until their return.

In the meantime, though, William fell in love with a piece of land and saw in it the beginning of a new future for his family, one in which he could hold his head up high in society, rather than being held down by his class status.  He never wanted to return to England and secretly hoped that Sal would change her mind.  Although Sal was clear on her desires, William was more circumspect about his hopes that she would change her mind.  In the end, William got his way, and the family stayed in Australia.  Sal became resigned to her fate, but I’m not sure how happy she was about it.  I know that Grenville wrote a sequel to The Secret River, but I haven’t read it yet.  I am curious to find out the longer-term repercussions of these basic conflicts between these two strong individuals.

Overall, I loved both of these novels and recommend both of them.

Do you think the problems faced by James and Marilyn are relics of the past?  Or is this story just as likely to occur today? 

What should a couple do when the two people have such strongly divergent basic desires, such as where to live?

For more information on Celeste Ng, click here.

For more information on Kate Grenville, click here.

This is my 1960-1979 entry in my When Are You Reading? challenge.

 

 

My Arbitrary and Unreliable List of Good Books

I have read a lot of books in my day.  And yet, I sometimes find that if somebody asks me to recommend a good book, I go blank, like a deer in the headlights.  It seems like the “search” function of my brain goes on overload and then shuts down.  Or something.  This post is an attempt to remedy that problem.

On this list are novels that I personally found to be page-turners.  They made me want to stop doing whatever else I was supposed to be doing so that I could finish them.  I want to emphasize that being a page-turner is not necessarily the same thing as having high literary merit.  There are other books that deserve more praise and are worth re-reading and discussing.

Another disclaimer is that I have almost certainly forgotten some other books I have loved because that’s just the way my memory is (not) working lately.

So, here are a few novels that I have read in the last year or so that I really enjoyed.  I am too lazy to describe what they are about so I’ll provide links to Amazon instead.

Life after Life, Kate Atkinson.  Amazon link.

Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn  Amazon link.

The Girl on The Train, Paula Hawkins  Amazon link

The Signature of all Things, Elizabeth Gilbert  Amazon link

Cutting for Stone Abraham Verghese  Amazon link

Defending Jacob, William Landay  Amazon link

Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver  Amazon link

The Given Day, Dennis Lehane  Amazon link

The Piano Teacher Janice K. Lee  Amazon link

The Too-Wild-West: Amanda Coplin’s “The Orchardist”

MizB at shoudbereading hosts the weekly Musing Mondays event.

Here are the rules:

Musing Mondays asks you to muse about one of the following each week…
• Describe one of your reading habits.
• Tell us what book(s) you recently bought for yourself or someone else, and why you chose that/those book(s).
• What book are you currently desperate to get your hands on? Tell us about it!
• Tell us what you’re reading right now — what you think of it, so far; why you chose it; what you are (or, aren’t) enjoying it.
• Do you have a bookish rant? Something about books or reading (or the industry) that gets your ire up? Share it with us!
• Instead of the above questions, maybe you just want to ramble on about something else pertaining to books — let’s hear it, then!

Amanda Coplin
Amanda Coplin

I am currently reading Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist for one of my book groups.  Set in late 19th/early 20th century Washington State, it is the story of orchardist William Talmadge and two young women, Jane and Della, whom he befriends and tries to protect.   This is Coplin’s first novel, and she has received high praise from critics, deservedly so.

orchardist

I am only about halfway through, so I am not ready to make Grand Sweeping Pronouncements on the novel as a whole, except by saying that Coplin’s writing is beautifully evocative of a bygone era, and her characters are complex and engaging.

One thing that struck me about this novel was how utterly wild the Wild West was.  By that, I mean characters could live their entire lives with little to no contact with the larger world or even other people.  People could and did start their own homestead and live their lives with only the most minimal contact with society.

In today’s hyper-connected world, where we are constantly bombarded with information from around the world, this may seem appealing.  Such isolation, however, has a dark side.  We see this darkness in The Orchardist.  We learn early on that Jane and Della are runaways from what can only be termed sexual slavery.  A man named Michaelson keeps a brothel.  However, the brothel is full of children and young women who are kept captive there as slaves. It is unclear where these women came from, but it is suggested that many of them were kidnapped and several are the children of the slaves.  If a woman dares to escape, Michaelson sends out his men to hunt them down and bring them back.

Everybody in the sparsely populated community knows what goes on in Michaelson’s place, but nobody does anything about it.  This aspect of the novel puzzles me.  Surely, even in the Wild Wild West, there were laws about kidnapping and sexual slavery? Or did nobody care because the slaves were just “whores”?

Maybe some of you readers know more about the history of these times and can elucidate me.  I know that brothels existed (and still do), but I assumed the women working there were adults who chose this way to make a living.  Was Michaelson’s brand of sexual servitude for white women common in that day and region?

Blame it on Hong Kong: The Piano Teacher by Janice Y. K. Lee

 

“I’ve known girls like you for years.  You come over from England and don’t know what to do with yourselves.  You could be different.  You should take the opportunity to become something else.”  (55)

 

 The Piano Teacher, by Janice Y. K. Lee.  Viking, 2008

(quotations in this book are from the Barnes and Noble NOOK edition.)

 

Piano Teacher

 

What makes people who they are?  Is there one core self that remains immutable over time?  Or might there be several potential selves lying dormant, waiting for the opportunity to emerge?  What effect does place have on our identities, our conceptions of who we are?

Janice Y. K. Lee’s haunting 2008 novel The Piano Teacher explores these questions, among many others.  The novel is set in Hong Kong in two different periods:  the early 1940s, during the Japanese occupation, and the early 1950s, after the English are back in control of the colony.  The piano teacher of the title is Claire Pendleton, a newly married 28 year old English woman who has come to Hong Kong in the early 1950s with her husband, a man to whom she is not attracted.  She takes a job giving piano lessons to the child of Victor and Melody Chen, a wealthy Chinese couple.   Eventually, she meets the Chens’ English chauffeur, Will Truesdale, and begins an affair with him.

We learn that ten years earlier, Will Truesdale moved to Hong Kong and fell in love with Trudy Liang, a wealthy, beautiful, and charming Eurasian woman.  The novel switches back and forth in time, focusing on all three characters.  One of Lee’s major focuses is the effect of World War II and the brutal Japanese occupation on the characters.  While some characters show bravery and undying loyalty, many others descend into ugliness, into greed and betrayal.

While love and betrayal are perhaps the main themes of this novel, Lee simultaneously explores another issue:  that of the unstable self.   What happens to a person if they are unmoored from their home environment and everyone they know?   Claire Pendleton muses on this question throughout the novel and finds herself changing in ways she had never imagined possible.  She thinks at one point, “This is Hong Kong.  I am a woman, displaced.  A woman a world away from who I am supposed to be” (63).

Hong Kong
Hong Kong

When Claire first moves to Hong Kong, she is still unformed, having lived a sheltered life.  She does not like the person she has been up until this point.  She “wanted to be someone else.  The old Claire seemed provincial, ignorant” (37).   She senses that there is another Claire inside her, clamoring to come out, but this person was not able to emerge in the constraints of her English life.

“There had been times when Claire felt that she could become a different person.  She sensed it in herself, when someone made a comment at dinner, and she thought of the perfect, acerbic reply, or something even racy, and she felt her mouth opening, her lungs taking in air so that she could then push out the words, but they never came out.  She swallowed her thought, and the person she could have become sank down again, weighted by the Claire that was already too evident in the world.  She sensed it when she held a glass at a cocktail party and suddenly felt the urge to crush it in her hand.  She never did.  That hidden person had ballooned up and deflated so often, the elasticity of her possibility diminished over time.”

Transplanted to Hong Kong, though, her submerged self starts to grow, like a formerly stunted plant that thrives in the heat and humidity.

“But this was the thing:  she, herself, had changed in Hong Kong.  Something about the tropical clime had ripened her appearance, brought everything into harmony.  Where the other Englishwomen looked as if they were about to wilt in the heat, she thrived, like a hothouse flower.”

The change goes much deeper than her looks.   Unmoored from her familiar surroundings, she does things she never dreamed she would, such as having an extramarital affair with Will. It was as if “her old English self, with its defenses and prejudices, was dissolving in the humid, fetid environment around her.”   She is strongly attracted to Will, and perhaps in love with him.  However, she knows at some level that the real love affair she is having is with her newly emerging self.

“He didn’t have an idea of what she should be like.  She was a new person—one who could have an affair, one who could be ribald, or sarcastic, or clever, and he was never surprised.  She was out of context with him.  She was a new person.  Sometimes she felt that she was more in love with that new person she could be, that this affair was an affair with a new Claire, and that Will was just the enabler.” (65)

The combined influence of Hong Kong and her affair with Will transform Claire profoundly by the end of the novel.   To be sure, she is more sophisticated and sure of herself.  More interesting, though, is the way the ridiculous prejudices and narrow view of the world she brought with her to Hong Kong have begun to disappear.  Her intellectual horizons and her view of world broaden immeasurably and she sees herself a thread in the larger web of humanity.

The Piano Teacher is about more than Claire’s transformation, of course.  For starters, Claire’s emerging self was brought about at least in part by Will, who had previously been transformed by his relationship with Trudy. Trudy, in turn, depended on Will to define herself in a way that was not self-destructive.  I know that I am not doing justice to the complexity of this novel in this brief discussion.  The main point I want to make here is that it seems to me that Janice Lee is emphasizing in this novel not only the malleability of our selves, of who we are, but also the way our identities are created through our relationships with others and with our environments.

In case it wasn’t clear, I loved this book and would highly recommend it.  The portrayal of the English people in Hong Kong during the Japanese invasion was fascinating to me.  So, too, were the complicated characters and their relationships with each other.  Trudy Liang is a particularly interesting character.  If you decide to read the book, don’t give up if you find the beginning less than compelling.   The characters and themes at first seemed shallow to me, but the war reveals all of the complexity beneath the surface.

What do you think about the issue of the self?  Do you think you would be essentially the same person no matter what circumstances you find yourself in?  Or do we, as Janice Lee suggests, have a number of competing selves inside us, waiting for the right opportunity to emerge?

 

 

Hong Kong
Hong Kong

 

That’s the Spirit! Ghost Marriage in Lisa See’s “Peony in Love” (Part Seven of Minnesota Couch Warmer’s Guide to China)

Ghost Wedding
Ghost Wedding

See source of this photo here.

Chen Tong (known by her family as Peony) and Wu Ren finally get married after pining for each other for 23 years. All of the rituals considered proper for their time and place—17th century China–were performed, including the payment of a dowry and a bride price. Peony was dressed up beautifully and carried in a palanquin to her new husband’s house. A lavish banquet was served, and finally the bride and groom retired to the bridal chamber, where they spent the night together.

Peony and Wu Ren are characters in Lisa See’s meticulously researched historical novel Peony in Love. The wedding scene between the two of them might seem commonplace, except for a couple of important details. For one thing, Wu Ren was already married to somebody else. Also, Peony happened to be dead when she married her beloved Wu.

"Peony in Love" by Lisa See
“Peony in Love” by Lisa See

Peony and Wu Ren had a ghost marriage. I learned from reading Peony in Love and doing a little research afterwards, that ghost marriages were not uncommon in pre-Communist China. It was believed that if a person died while single, they would be very lonely in the afterlife. Furthermore, if the single ghost was a woman, she would have no living descendants to care for her. (Daughters can only be venerated by their husband’s family, not by their natal family.) Because of their loneliness and lack of proper veneration, they would most likely cause a great deal of mischief to their family members and descendants who were still alive. Therefore, it was better for everyone involved to find a spouse for the dead family member.

In this case of Peony in Love, Peony was engaged to Wu Ren but died before they could marry. The Chinese believe that death does not take away any of the human longings we all feel when still alive. If anything, they are amplified. So Peony spent 23 love sick years in the afterlife, pining for her beloved and wreaking a fair amount of havoc on the living. Once they were properly married, she was venerated by Wu Ren’s current wife as the dead first wife, and everybody was much happier.

Although this custom seems strange to Western sensibilities and was outlawed when Mao Zedong came to power, I learned that ghost marriages still occur occasionally in China. In fact, according to March 2013 article in Time Magazine, four Chinese men were arrested and are facing more than “2 years in prison for digging up female corpses and selling them for ghost marriages, an ancient ritual of burying newly deceased women alongside dead bachelors so that they can accompany each other in their afterlives, according to the state-run newspaper China Daily.

According to the report, the men have been digging up graves in coal-rich Shanxi and Shaanxi provinces since 2011. They reportedly washed the corpses and fabricated hospital documents to push up the prices. The thieves allegedly made almost $40,000 off the 10 stolen corpses before being caught.” (See Time article link here.)

I will be traveling to China soon, so learning about ghost marriages and the fact that they still occur made me think about how the practice might affect me. One the one hand, I see a good business opportunity here. $40,000 for ten corpses is not bad money. I could probably earn that in five days of relatively light work, assuming I dug up two graves per night. Piece of cake!

On the other hand, I wonder what would happen if I died while in China. Would I be eligible to be a ghost bride? I don’t think I would like that. It was bad enough to learn a few years ago that I could be baptized posthumously as a Mormon. (No offense to Mormons, but I am a card-carrying Lutheran and would prefer not to convert after death.) Now, I might end up not only a Mormon, but in an arranged marriage to somebody I don’t care for—and it will last literally forever. Although, if I become a Mormon, would that make my desirability as a mate for a dead Chinese man less desirable?

Another point to consider is that I am sure I do not meet the physical ideal of Chinese bachelors. But let’s be honest—after being dead for a week or more, most women aren’t at their best. With the right chemicals, make-up, clothing and photo shopping, I could probably get by.

Clearly, as with any custom, there are pros and cons to this practice. I will keep you posted on my outcomes—either as a grave robber or a blushing ghost bride. (Can ghosts even blush?)