What if a little girl could get a better childhood through silence? What if she could get attention, affection, gifts and praise beyond her imagination for following one rule: don’t speak a single word? At a crucial moment, this seemed to be a very real option for six-year-old Ruth Young in The Bonesetter’s Daughter.
Moments after a playground accident, Ruth tried to speak and could not. She lay on the ground, in terror of a rebuke from her mother for her actions seconds before. But when her mother Luling reached her, she lifted Ruth gently and wept over her: “Her mother wasn’t angry, she was worried, full of love.” Ruth held her silence then for the rest of the day, to the awe of her classmates and the wonderment of the school nurse. LuLing was proud of her brave daughter— “so good” that she didn’t complain even for a broken arm. A few days later, Ruth considered testing to see if she could speak, “making a little sound so small no one would even hear.” “But if she did, then all the good things that were happening might disappear.” For fear that she might break the spell, Ruth kept silent. But such a bargain might have unforeseen consequences. What if one day she wanted her voice and couldn’t find it?
Silence had a strong history in Ruth’s family. Giving the silent treatment to win a fight was customary. There were the silences of a mother struggling with a foreign tongue and of a child with a secret to hide. Beyond that, silence was the only option for the most significant person in LuLing’s childhood—LuLing’s beloved nursemaid, “Precious Auntie.” As LuLing recalled:
“She had no voice, just gasps and wheezes, the snorts of a ragged wind. She told me things with grimaces and groans, dancing eyebrows and darting eyes. She wrote about the world on my carry-around chalkboard… Hand-talk, face-talk, and chalk-talk were the languages I grew up with, soundless and strong.”
Precious Auntie’s suffering were a thing anyone could see: she was burned in a horrible fire. “She had a sweet-peach forehead, wide-set eyes, full cheeks tapering to a small plump nose. That was the top of her face. Then there was the bottom.” And the bottom of her face… was melted, distorted, blackened.
Yet it’s Precious Auntie ruined face that LuLing most yearned to see. LuLing both hoped for and feared to communicate with her. After Precious Auntie’s death, there was so much LuLing wished she could un-say, and un-do. LuLing lived her life on the run from the devastating fear that this woman whom she most loved and to whom she owed the most would never forgive her.
LuLing brought some gifts from those long-ago days into her new life—gifts she needed when Ruth’s bout of childhood muteness lingered long. LuLing solved Ruth’s communication problem with an idea worthy of the “hand-talk face-talk chalk-talk” languages used by Precious Auntie so long ago. LuLing brought her daughter a tea-tray of wet sand and a single chopstick: now Ruth could write her answers to questions. It delighted the child. Ruth got a rush of excitement at her mother’s respectful treatment of her written words. (“This was amazing! Soon her mother was asking her opinions on all kinds of matters.”) Then Ruth stumbled onto a ghost: by coincidence, Ruth wrote Precious Auntie’s childhood pet name for her mother. The whole scene shifted. LuLing believed her much-missed family member was communicating with her through Ruth’s writing. This was the one person Ruth never hoped would get involved in her life—a new and unexpected terror.
LuLing pressed Ruth to write messages from Precious Auntie in the sand—often with seemingly good results. “Most of the time she [Ruth] thought sand-writing was just a boring chore, that it was her duty to guess what her mother wanted to hear, then move quickly to end the session. Yet Ruth had also gone through times when she believed that a ghost was guiding her arm, telling her what to say. Sometimes she wrote things that turned out to be true, like tips for the stock market, which her mother started investing in to stretch the money she had saved over the years.” And the one time that danger close at hand was greater than the fear of ghosts, Ruth found she had a tool to overcome all her mother’s objections, and achieved her escape from peril.
Beyond LuLing’s desperate fear that “Precious Auntie” would withhold forgiveness and Ruth’s nameless fears of ghosts and death, The Bonesetter’s Daughter is full of fears. It has the fears of the young and the fears of the old. Fear of shame. Fear of sickness. Fear that your life is ruined and there is nothing you can do about it. Fear of poverty. Fear of the invading army on the day of disaster. Fear of being unloved and alone. Fear of failing to do right by your loved ones. Fear of an inescapable curse. Fear of forgetting the one thing you were trusted to remember.
But amid all that fear, it is also about the power of the written word, and the ways our silences can conceal or reveal our hopes, our thoughts, and our souls. It is about loving family through the ambiguities and disasters of life. It is about the potential that deafness and callousness can yield to comprehension and tenderheartedness. And it’s about the hope that maybe we can remember what we need to redeem those we love.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Victoria Williams is a Christian woman who loves reading, teaching math, and watching people grow. Her obsessions include the Gospel, loving the weak, peacemaking, cross-cultural ministry, storytelling, nerdy conversations with friends, and coffee. She also blogs.