Title: The Teahouse Fire
Author: Ellis Avery
Publication Date: 2006
Nine year old Aurelia Corneille has had a hard life. She is the daughter of an unmarried Frenchwoman who immigrated to America to be close to her brother, a catholic priest in New York city, after she has been disowned by her mother for shaming her family. She has grown up living on the charity of the nuns in the convent at the church her uncle Charles ministers at.
When her uncle is given a posting to go to Japan as a missionary in 1866 he plans on taking Aurelia and her mother with him to help as servants. Given Aurelia's gift for languages (she speaks English and French) he hopes she will learn the tricky Japanese tongue quicker than the brothers of the mission party and help comunicate with the "heathen Japanese" when her mother is unable to go with due to failing health, Aurelia and her uncle engage on their journey across the world.
In 1866, Japan was still closed to foreigners. The missionaries are smuggled into Miyako the old Imperial Capital of Japan (now known as Kyoto). Unhappy with her new life with her uncle, Aurelia flees a fire in the building she and her uncle are living in. She runs far into the unknown city. Fatigued, she stumbles into one of the small tea houses owned by the Shin family as a part of their tea ceremony school. She is discovered by Yukako, the Shin family's daughter, and is adopted into the family as servant to Yukako.
The Teahouse Fire follows Aurelia as she becomes "Miss Urako". The book takes place during the fall of the samurai culture and the opening of Japan to outsiders. Urako, servant to the household that she is, becomes a "little sister" to Yukako her closest companion. She sees the struggle Yukako goes through as a female in a male dominated world. The book chronicles the tumultuous changes that Japan goes through as it enters a period of enlightenment and progress. The story spans twenty-five years of Aurelia's life in Japan after her fate has been changed by tragedy.
I loved the first lines of this book:
"When I was nine, in the city now called Kyoto, I changed my fate. I walked into the shrine through the red arch and struck the bell. I bowed Twice. I clapped twice. I whispered to the foriegn goddess and bowed again. And then I heard the shouts and the fire. Wha had I asked for? Any life but this one. "
with that I was pulled into historic Japan, and had a hard time pulling myself out to take care of classwork. I found the book engaging and interesting as the changes to Japan are shown through the eyes of someone living them. Aurelia struggles with not being completely Japanese through most of her life, to find herself known as a foreigner and pushed away from her home in Japan due to rising nationalism brought about because of the influx of foreign influences to the country.