The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts

Book review by
Barbara Schultz, Common Sense Media
The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts Book Poster Image
Provocative memoir blends history with legend.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Maxine Hong Kingston's creative memoir purposely blurs lines between fact and myth, but readers will find an informative investigation of gender roles and family life among Chinese immigrants to the U.S. during the 20th century.

Positive Messages

The positive message here is in the narrator/author's strength to chart her own path, despite her demoralizing upbringing. A girl can value her family's heritage without internalizing their sexist or narrow attitudes.

Positive Role Models & Representations

The narrator's mother, Brave Orchid, is an odd role model in many ways, but she sets a powerful example by attending medical school when her husband leaves her behind.

Violence

There are graphic descriptions of animals being butchered, and people killing each other with swords, scythes, hammers, and stones. A woman commits suicide by drowning.

Sex

A woman is known to be pregnant by a man other than her husband. Girls are warned that when they get their periods, they are in danger. The chapter "White Tigers," which includes a folk tale about the woman warrior Fa Mu Lan, says that the narrator watched as "fat men sat on naked girls." A mentally challenged man carries a box full of pornographic magazines.

Language

There's one use each of "bastard," "s--t" and "piss," and one instance each of the racial slurs "chink" and "gook."

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

People consume wine on several occasions. One person smokes a cigarette, and there's one mention of people smoking a "water pipe."

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts is considered a work of creative nonfiction, as it blends memoir with folk tales and second-hand history. The author focuses on memories of her own family life in Stockton, CA, and the folk legends and family histories her mother told about life in China. Since its 1975 release, the book has been somewhat controversial for its portrayal of Chinese-Americans as sexist and superstitious. However, it remains a provocative point of departure, especially in high school history and literature classes, to explore themes from racial stereotypes, sexism, and the assimilation of Chinese people into American culture, to what constitutes a memoir. There are a few brief sexual references and instances of moderate alcohol consumption, as well as several graphic descriptions of violence against animals and people. Woman Warrior received a National Book Critics Circle Award for general nonfiction in 1976.

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What's the story?

Maxine Hong Kingston's THE WOMAN WARRIOR: MEMOIRS OF A GIRLHOOD AMONG GHOSTS received a National Book Critics Circle Award for general nonfiction in 1976, but the book stretches the definition of a memoir, as the author blends folk legends with personal memories and second-hand histories. The book begins with the narrator's mother telling her daughter a cautionary tale about a relative whose mistake earns her community's condemnation. Subsequent chapters include the story of a legendary woman soldier's training and battles, family memories of the narrator's childhood in Stockton, and tales from her mother's experience in medical school. The mother, Brave Orchid, who tells several stories, uses the term "ghost" loosely, to describe supernatural forces as well as anything or anyone she considers "other." She denigrates her children, yet tells inspiring stories about women's achievements, including her own. Many of this "creative nonfiction" book's stories and memories focus on the role of women in Chinese and Chinese-American society, and the impact of cultural attitudes on Chinese female children.

Is it any good?

The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts offers a fascinating opportunity to discuss the Chinese-American experience, as well as gender roles, families and writing in general. Maxine Hong Kingston is a wonderful storyteller, and the myths and personal memories are equally entertaining. Without any foreknowledge about the structure, young readers may be a little confused by the way the book moves among time periods, and between fact and legend, so a little preparation is helpful.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the ways the book discusses the value of girls vs. boys. What does the author want the reader to understand about her upbringing?

  • What's your opinion: Is Woman Warrior a memoir? Is it a book of fiction?

  • What other books have you read about the experiences of immigrants, and their lives between two cultures? How do they compare with Woman Warrior?

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