Lamanda Park Branch’s discussion of The Distant Land of My Father focused on Anna’s father, almost to the exclusion of every other facet of the novel. Several of the participants could not understand what motivated him in general and, in particular, what motivated him to return to China near the end of the Second World War. In fact, it was surprising to me, at least, how distasteful these readers found Joseph Schoene.
To our participants, Joseph was a man driven by greed, by a lust for adventure and excitement. His hunger to play the “game,” led him to risk everything—his family, his fortune, his very life. They cited specifically the scene during the Japanese occupation where he takes Anna with him to the warehouse in Hongkew and confronts four Japanese gendarmes. Not only was traveling to this section of Shanghai dangerous in and of itself—and initially kept from Eve—but Joseph was carrying currency in a money belt strapped to his chest. As he himself notes, “’We tricked them, all right. They don’t own me. Nobody owns Joseph Schoene.’ He stood and flung open the car door, whistling again, as though we had reason to be jubilant.” (p. 92) Winning, the need to prove his cleverness, was suggested as motivating force behind his actions.
Yet Shanghai seems more important to Joseph than his wife or his child; in fact, it is the one ‘relationship’ that he does not betray. It could even be argued that the city, by changing in ways he can’t accept or even acknowledge, betrays him. He must undergo unspeakable suffering before he is forced to leave what truly is his home.
Joseph’s transformation was discussed at length as well. It clearly begins while he was imprisoned by the Communists, and continues via his embracing of Christian spirituality, his wife’s death, and the birth of his grandchildren. As materialistic as he was during his life as a Shanghai expatriate millionaire, he was frugal and virtually monastic once he returned to Los Angeles for good. In a sense, he is serving a penance for his neglect of his family. Joseph, it was agreed, was a survivor, yet his character, his essence, remains as enigmatic at the end of the novel as it was at the beginning.