The Taste of Rain
The Taste of Rain
Miss E. and Mr. Liddell are walking toward the hut. From where I am sitting I catch bits of their conversation.
“I just don’t think it’s a wise idea,” I hear Mr. Liddell say.
“What isn’t a wise idea?’
“It’s good for the girls to take care of another living soul,” Miss E. tells Mr. Liddell.
Because Miss E. has used the word soul, I decide they must be talking about religion. But then I hear Mr. Liddell say, “When you told me the girls had put a bonnet on that creature, well, that’s when I got concerned.”
It’s Albertine they’re talking about, not religion.
Mr. Liddell takes hold of Miss E.’s forearm. “Look how thin your wrists are,” he tells her.
Miss E. shakes her arm loose but she doesn’t back away from Mr. Liddell.
“I’ve always had thin wrists,” she says.
“That pig -,” Mr. Liddell starts to say.
Miss E. interrupts him. “Her name is Albertine.”
“That pig, Albertine, isn’t a doll for you and the girls to play with. That isn’t why the coolie gave the creature to you in the first place. That pig is meant for eating. I’m sorry to be so blunt, my dear, but that pig, slaughtered and roasted, might just help keep you and the children alive.”
Gwen, 13 and the narrator of The Taste of Rain, is one of 28 girls living in a hut with their teacher, Miss E., in the Weihsien Civilian Assembly Centre, a Japanese prison in Northern China. They were taken to this prison camp in 1942. The story opens in 1945.
Gwen’s parents, like those of most of the children in the prison camp, are Presbyterian missionaries in China who placed their children in a boarding school in Chefoo while they were serving inland. The last time Gwen saw her parents was in 1939. The day after the Japanese victory at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, which brought the United States into the Second World War, Japanese troops took over the boarding school and held the children and teachers prisoners there until they moved them to Weihsien.
Miss E., the head teacher at the school, had the girls bring their Girl Guide uniforms along with books, games and art supplies when they were moved to the prison camp at Weihsien. From the start, the novel shows Miss E.’s efforts to make the girls’ lives worthwhile and fun under the most dismal of circumstances. Every morning, after the Lord’s Prayer, her 28 girls recite the Guide pledge, then listen to Miss E.’s pep talk. She urges them to be thankful to be together, to make the most of the day, and to do a good turn for someone without expecting a reward. Then, as they sing The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, a rat scuttles through the hut. Miss E. says it looks like her Uncle Edward, and starts planning a rat-trapping competition for all 140 children in the camp. When a Japanese soldier appears for morning inspection, Miss E. wishes him “Good morning”, in Japanese and has the children say it, too.
As the story develops, readers see the grim realities of prison life. The prisoners eat mush made from corn usually reserved as cattle feed. Miss E. gives the girls paste made of ground-up eggshells to strengthen their bones because their diet is inadequate for proper growth and development. Just 23 toilets are shared by 1,800 prisoners. Rats, lice and bedbugs are facts of life. Twice daily, everyone must assemble for roll call, and those who fidget, whisper or fall over are punished.
While Gwen throws herself into Miss E.’s techniques for warding off despair, Gwen’s friend Tilly articulates a pessimistic view of things. Miss E.’s Pollyanna approach to life is inspiring, but Tilly makes readers see how terrible the situation is. Readers will be shocked by things the children find commonplace, such as fights over food, the guards’ brutality, and the frequent deaths from malnutrition and abuse. When a boy is electrocuted during roll call by a cable used to electrify the prison walls, Miss E. tells the girls not to look at his body. Tilly says, “We’re thirteen years old and we can do what we want. Miss E. is not our mother”, but Gwen replies that she’s the closest thing they have to a mother.
Although it hurts Gwen too much to remember her life with her parents, occasionally she lets one memory out of her mental box. Twice she dreams of her mother. A nightmare in which her parents have forgotten her and replaced her with another child reveals her loneliness and sense of being abandoned. In a subsequent dream, when her mother appears and says, “Don’t!”, Gwen takes it as a warning not to follow through with a dangerous act she is planning. It also suggests that her mother has died and has come to her as a spirit.
After the rat-catching contest, Miss E. offers all the children a prize - a celebrity who becomes their father figure. Eric Liddell (1902-1945) was a Scottish Olympic Gold Medalist runner, rugby union international player, and Christian missionary. His story was told in the Oscar-winning 1981 film Chariots of Fire. Born in China to missionary parents, he was educated in England and Scotland. At the 1924 Paris Olympics, he refused to run the 100 metre race because it was scheduled on a Sunday. Instead, he competed in the 400 metre run, held on a weekday, and won Gold. He returned to China in 1925 as a missionary teacher.
Although there is no room to run in the prison camp, Mr. Liddell becomes popular for showing the children exercises to strengthen their limbs. He and Miss E., whom he calls “Eliza”, are good friends. Gwen overhears several of their conversations, including one in which Miss E. talks about the Nanking Massacre in which hundreds of thousands of innocent people were murdered - “and worse” - by Japanese troops. As Gwen wonders what could be worse, Miss E. says the thing that most upsets her is that she may not be able to protect “her children”. Mr. Liddell tells her that “worrying is like praying for bad things to happen.”
Gwen tries to follow Miss E.’s example and cultivate a positive attitude. Among the bright spots in her life are her conversations with a 15-year-old boy named Matthew and the gift of the piglet, Albertine, from a Chinese employee who lives outside the prison. The taste of rain is a gift in a place where water is scarce and dirty. The most surprising gift of all is a glimpse of the world outside the walls. A kindly Japanese guard, who has a daughter Gwen’s age at home, takes Gwen and her friend close to the watchtower, then lifts each of them up in the air so that they can see the fields and buildings on the other side. This experience, at first terrifying, reminds them of freedom and has ramifications for the plot.
The novel is full of heart-rending moments, such as the scene where the girls and Miss E. say goodbye to the piglet, Albertine, and thank it for sacrificing its life. It is followed by another scene in which Mr. Liddell, in hospital, summons the willpower to listen to the songs the girls have made up in his honour.
Readers like to pick up on clues and anticipate what may happen, and, in The Taste of Rain, the author foreshadows events very subtly. When Mr. Liddell collapses during phys. ed., Miss E. says it’s just over-exertion, but Tilly and the readers know that the situation is more serious. Similarly, when Matthew asks Gwen a lot of questions about the lay of the land outside the prison wall, readers can guess why he’s so interested even if Gwen can’t.
Author Monique Polak based her novel on the experiences of Mary Previte, a young prisoner at Weihsien, who told her that the teachers “anchored” the children and were their “substitute parents”. Prior to learning about Weihsien, Polak knew something about child prisoners. Her novel, What World is Left, (www.cmreviews.ca/cm/vol15/no5/whatworldisleft.html) is about her mother’s girlhood experiences in a Nazi concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic.
The Taste of Rain is so well-told and compelling that one hesitates to find any fault with it, but the open ending is disappointing because it leaves several threads hanging. I wanted to know if Gwen’s parents survived, if the two boys escaped to safety, and especially more about Miss E. Toward the end of the novel, readers learn that Miss E once was a ballet dancer in England. Her journey from that world to the mission fields of China and the development of her faith would have been fascinating reading. Miss E. is probably a composite character based on several teachers, but she is such a remarkable creation that one wishes for her full story.
Although The Taste of Rain has a child narrator, it is the sort of young adult novel that will engage and inform grown-up readers as well.
Ruth Latta’s latest novel is Grace in Love: A Novel about Grace Woodsworth (Ottawa, Baico, 2018). Her work-in-progress, Votes, Love and War, is about the Manitoba women’s suffrage movement and World War I.