Editor’s Note: Lisa See’s novel THE TEA GIRL OF HUMMINGBIRD LANE is a Great Group Reads pick for National Reading Group Month this year.
I started a new school when I was 12. It was a bilingual curriculum, and although my classes were largely taught in English, my fellow students and teachers often chatted and reverted to other languages I could barely follow. Every day I would slump home from the bus stop, lonely and feeling like I only half-understood my peers and lessons. My mother would take one look at my mopey face and suggest a cup of tea. It was a comforting ritual to sit still for a few minutes and realize how situations can improve with a warm cup of steamy aromatics and delicate flavors.
The power of tea and of mothers’ traditions is the heart of Lisa See’s novel THE TEA GIRL OF HUMMINGBIRD LANE. The story begins with a young girl listening to her mother, A-Ma, interpret their families’ dreams, noting “every story, every dream, every moment of our waking lives is filled with one fateful coincidence after another.” In their remote mountain village surrounded by tea terraces, coincidence is as much a respected force as the will of the gods that their people, the ethnic Chinese minority Akha, worship. Coincidence is seen as twists of fate to be adhered to, and Li-Yan is taught blind obedience to these tribal traditions from birth.
A-Ma teaches her only daughter more than just obedience, however. Li-Yan is primed to take over her mother’s respected role as healer on their mountain, and she is also A-Ma’s heir to a secret grove of tea trees whose age and rarity provide near-magical effects. Yet before Li-Yan can inherit this legacy, fate intervenes. Li-Yan witnesses a terrible ritual, which tests her faith and shakes the core of her Akha beliefs. This questioning of tradition leads her to become a village exile, forging an unknown path in modern China and the world of tea trading.
Interspersed through Li-Yan’s formidable tale and the fascinating details of tea cultivation, history, and trade, is the story of an American girl adopted from China as an infant. Relayed through a series of official documents, from doctor’s notes to school reports, it’s clear Haley longs to discover something of her past through the only gift her birth mother left behind: an aged tea cake.
A perennial book club favorite, Lisa See built her writing career on commanding readers’ attention through detailed history, unknown stories of China’s past, and the subtle, moving relationships between female characters. THE TEA GIRL OF HUMMINGBIRD LANE offers all this and more—the chance to reexamine your own ritual cup of comfort in a new light.