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The Far Side Of The SkyThe Far Side Of The Sky by Daniel Kalla
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novel greatly reminded me of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, another novel dealing with a “fish out of water” Westerner in new territory, learning the social customs of the land, and befriending am intriguing native woman who is an outsider in some way. I wonder just how common that is in literature, now that I think about it. Like The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, this novel is also very thorough on its background research and has a grounding in some medical history as well (Kalla is a medical doctor who practices in Vancouver) But the two eras that these novels deal with couldn’t be any more different, and the circumstances of the main protagonists are as far apart as stars in the sky, with one set firmly in the promising, uncertain world of Tokugawa Japan, the other in equally uncertain Shanghai partitioned and approaching a brutal beating by the coming of WWII.
The hero of our story here is Herr Dokter Franz Adler, an Austrian Jew who is so removed from his faith and heritage that the only common trait him and Judaism seem to share is a distaste for both liars and working on Saturdays. But his secularism matters not to the Nazis, for whom, a Jew is a Jew, just ask Primo Levi. After seeing his poor brother murdered in cold blood a few days before Kristallnacht, Doctor Adler resolves to remove himself, his daughter with cerebral palsy, and his freshly widowed sister-in-law out of Austria. But where to go? Countries all across the world are turning Jewish Germans and Austrians away, leaving very few viable choices. Franz settles on Shanghai, bringing along his daughter, his sister-in-law, and an eccentric, delightful, tragically underused character called Ernst, a gay artist who has as much to run from in Austria as the Adlers. Shanghai is a new, boisterous, and interesting city, with new and interesting people, such as Simon, an American who is lending his time and hard work towards settling Jewish refugees, and Sunny, a Eurasian (What we in Hawaii would call Hapa, half white and half Chinese) nurse who was denied entrance into proper medical school by the casual sexism of the time, and many others. It’s Sunny who plays a central role to Dr. Adler’s transition to Shanghai, his “Miss Aibagawa”, who is simultaneously intriguing and yet accessible, but never falls prey to racist stereotyping. She is strong-willed, interesting, and a great character who really deserved her own series. I was worried she would fall into the primary role of being a love interest of the good Doctor, but she remained interesting, independent, and multifaceted. As a hapa character, it’s pretty interesting that she’d bond well to Dr. Adler, who is also something of an outsider within both communities, a stranger in a strange land and a secular Jew with a non-Jewish wife in his past.
The story as it progresses is basically a refreshment of the usual in Holocaust literature, avoiding the Nazis as their power and influence spreads, discovering that the uniform you wear isn’t necessarily the best indicator of the virtue and personal character of the person wearing it, and a stern lesson on the dangers of apathy and disregard for others. But with the new setting, I didn’t mind terribly, I obviously read a lot of Holocaust literature, and there are millions of stories and perspectives to gain from each one. I was quite glad to have read this one, in light of having finished a course on War and Peace in East Asia and noticing the care to detail on parts of the Pacific Theatre, such as Manchukuo and Shanghai’s partitioning between multiple powers. The history of Shanghai’s once-vibrant Jewish community was a treat to glimpse in this book, and the story is solid, if predictable. The characters won’t stay with you forever, but while you travel with them in the story, you definitely enjoy the journey.

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