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November 19, 2020

Two Trees Make a Forest, by Jessica J. Lee

Yesterday, just the day after I’d finished reading it, Jessica J. Lee’s second memoir, Two Trees Make a Forest: In Search of My Family’s Past Among Taiwan’s Mountains and Coasts, was awarded the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize. Lee is also author of Turning: A Year in the Water, a book that literally changed my life (after reading about her breaking ice with a hammer to swim in the dead of winter, how can I ever not just plunge into summer water ever again? There are no more excuses…) and which is distinguished by being one of the few books I’ve ever gotten rid of to regret. I have lots of books and live in an apartment, so I pass along most of my books once I’ve finished with them, but it turned out that I wasn’t finished with Turning after all. One of these days I’ll be replacing my copy, but in the meantime, there is Two Trees… which I’m never giving up. I learned my lesson the first time.

Lee’s work is an entrancing blend of nature writing and memoir, her stories grafted onto the landscape in a way that illuminates everything. And she’s got an eye for metaphor, or maybe it’s obvious. The book begins with the idea of “island,” which in English is defined by its relationship to water, but in Chinese (a civilization grown inland from the sea) the character for island includes a bird sitting on a mountain. Taiwan, from which her mother came (her parents fleeing there from mainland China after World War Two, an island that had always seemed particularly remote and distant to Lee, who felt more connected to her father’s culture in the United Kingdom, and was unsure of her own relationship to Taiwan and its culture.

The book braids together the story of Lee’s grandparents, which she discovers from a letter written by her grandfather and recordings she’d made of her grandmother before she died, along with a travelogue of Lee’s own discovery of Taiwan during trips during her 20s and 30s (including one with her mother, and another longer stay to improve her Mandarin), and the natural landscape of Taiwan, with mountains, and forests, rivers and coast. The land is fraught, prone to earthquakes and landslides, exacerbated by deforestation in Taiwan during its period of martial law until the 1990s. (In those years, Lee writes, conservation was suspect. Binoculars could be a tool of espionage…)

I know always nothing nothing about Taiwan, and its complicated history. I knew a bit about the Sino-Japanese War of 1937, which prompted a ceasefire in China’s civil war between the Communists and Nationalists and pushed mass populations westward and the Japanese invaded, because I’d read Janie Chang’s The Library of Legends in the spring. I’d been accustomed lately to thinking of Taiwan as “the good guys,” and had no idea about its oppressive history throughout the second half of the 20th century, its own kind fraughtness in addition to the earthquakes and landslides.

Lee’s eye for detail, her beautiful prose, and broad depth of knowledge (underlined by her remarkable curiosity) about the natural world make Two Trees Make a Forest a remarkable read. Her ability to see and weave patterns from disparate materials make the story surprising and engaging, and results in a book with considerable depth, a book fascinating in its specificity but also rich with general knowledge.

This is a book for anyone who ever wondered where they belong, who feels detached from stories of family, who revels in natural spaces and the stories they tell, and the incredible illuminations these spaces can grant us as we yearn for connection in the world.

2 thoughts on “Two Trees Make a Forest, by Jessica J. Lee”

  1. Janie says:

    Thank you for this review. Just asked my local bookstore to put a copy of Jessica Lee’s book aside for me. My family left Taiwan when I was a child, and “unsure of her own relationship to Taiwan and its culture” really caught my eye.

    1. Kerry says:

      Oh, wonderful!! And I really appreciated how your own book enhanced my understanding of this one.

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