In my recent search for living geography books I came across Little Pear, a short chapter book with whimsical illustrations about a boy growing up in a small Chinese village. Unlike dry textbooks, which are often written by a committee, living books are typically written by a single author who is passionate and knowledgable about his subject. They have a rich variety of vocabulary, and are well written. Living books are memorable, lovable ways to learn about everything from history and literature to math, music, and biology.
Before we were halfway done reading Little Pear aloud, however, we figured out the formula. Little Pear, the boy, is like an Asian Curious George. Every chapter is full of mischief but he never faces any consequences. As much as we wanted to learn about another culture in a faraway place, the lack of real-life cause-and-effect was disappointing. Even the dangers of running away from home to a big city, falling into a vast river, and even lying to his parents resulted in happy coincidences, rewards, and increased privileges. Thankfully, there are other books to choose from.
Enter Mei Fuh: Memories from China, an out-of-print treasure by Edith Schaeffer that I borrowed using our public library’s interlibrary loan. The best kind of children’s book is one that the youngest in the family loves nearly as much as the grown ups and big kids. Edith Schaeffer’s Mei Fuh is just such a book. A memoir of her life as a baby born in Wenchow China to missionary parens, Mei Fuh takes you into the life of a child who speaks more Chinese than English, knows how to eat rice and drink tea simultaneously, and has silk worms for pets, even as her Christian missionary parents shape her world to be biblically faithful.
Mei Fuh must certainly contain Schaeffer’s earliest memories of life. Yet she adds the benefit of decades of reflection, and a Christian worldview, to delve into complex themes of private property and theft, love for nature and animals, and the sanctity of human life. Schaeffer weaves her memories into stories as skillfully as the Chinese woman who used her chopsticks to transform the silkworms’ cocoons into the most luxurious silk for a dress.
As we read the book aloud, we felt the foreignness of being a stranger in a strange land. She helped us know what it was like to transition from the country of your birth to the country of your citizenship; how missionary life can resemble our residency on earth as citizens of heaven. These are not things Schaeffer tells her readers, but rather, her skillful stories show it. They left me drawing parallels, mulling over, meditating. Most memorable was God’s providential care of the details — directing Schaeffer’s birth in a far flung province of China, ordaining a childhood shaped by the customs and culture that would remain an influence on the rest of her life.
Having read Schaeffer’s L’Abri before reading Mei Fuh, but both in the same year, I marveled to think that this twirling girl who loved the feel of smooth bamboo and the sights and smells of oiled umbrellas in a walled compound in Wenchow would grow up to the be the woman who would host so many seekers at the shelter, L’Abri. Her upbringing must have affected how she cooked, hosted guests, and thought about God’s world and her place in it.
Moralizing books tell you what you should think. Elegant, living books show you such treasures through stories. They leave you asking questions and wanting to uncover the truth.