TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Amy Tan, is best known for her novels "The Joy Luck Club," "The Kitchen God's Wife" and "The Valley Of Amazement." Her fiction has drawn on her extended family. Her grandmother was a concubine in China. Tan's mother was married to an abusive husband in China. She left him for another man who had worked with the U.S. Information Service Agency in China as a ham radio engineer. They married and emigrated to America, where Amy and her siblings were born. In America, her father became a Baptist minister.
Amy Tan tells her own story in the form of a new memoir titled "Where The Past Begins." And in telling her own story, she writes the stories of her parents and maternal grandmother. As part of her preparation, she went through seven large plastic bins filled with memorabilia, letters, photos and family documents, including her parents' student visas, notices about possible deportation and their applications for citizenship, which they did get. She also found condolence cards from when her father died of a brain tumor. Her brother died within a year, also of a brain tumor. Amy Tan was in her teens at the time.
Amy Tan, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, it was seeming to me reading your book that you had two really different sources of seeing the world, one from your mother, one from your father. Your mother was the daughter of a concubine. She grew up in China, and then your mother was married to a man she described as evil who forced her to have sex and who, you know, she had, like - what? - five children with him. One of them died. One of them was stillborn. She runs away with your father and leaves that marriage. And then - and she's always telling you stories about, you know, like, curses and ghosts and her mother being a concubine. And then your father becomes a Baptist minister, and he's evangelical and fundamentalist, lots of Bible imagery. And they're both Chinese, but they both come from really different cultures in a way...
AMY TAN: Yeah.
GROSS: ...And really different ways of seeing the world. So did that affect - did you feel like you grew up in this, like, dual-brain (laughter) like, household?
TAN: Well, the dual brain had to do with mother, father; mother - a little bit hypersensitive, suicidal; father - honest, cheerful, a leader in the community, yes, very Christian. But what I didn't realize is that I was also getting these two different senses of the culture, the one that you described, which included a lot of bad things determined by fate or bad luck or ghosts or karma, and the one of my father that was dictated by God through prayer. And it was always there with my mother, but I didn't know the actual background, the history of her life that had contributed to that. You know, her warnings about men who were going to destroy me and make me want to kill myself is not a very good way of introducing your child to, you know, procreation. But, you know, that was always there, and it wasn't - I was getting more a sense of it when I was writing and asking her questions but even more when I was doing the research for this book.
GROSS: I'd be interested in hearing about the understanding of God that your father taught you, your father the Baptist minister.
TAN: God was a voice that came to my father when he was lost, and he was lost because he had had this affair with my mother in China, and he had come to the United States, and he was looking for direction. And he decided - because he came from a very Christian family, he decided that maybe he would find this direction through God. God spoke to him and said, this is the way you go. So my father decided to get a degree at the Berkeley Baptist Divinity School. Now, I always thought that God would talk to me as well. If you believed - if you were going to be baptized, you would have to hear this voice. And I pretended that I heard the voice and walked up the church aisle to say I believe in Jesus, that I heard the call, and I had - I had lied.
And I think, you know, I had this confusion but I had this other kind of voice in my head, not a schizophrenic voice but the voice of your own conscience in a way, the voice that is your narrative on what you're seeing in the world. And I just wondered, does everybody have that? You know, is it just me that has this running commentary? Now, the voice didn't tell me what to do. It didn't tell me walk up the aisle or sing hymns and, you know, convert people. It made observations, and it told me, you know, what I was seeing and how I would interpret the world.
GROSS: Yeah, that's why you're a writer.
TAN: I think a lot of - I don't know. Do you do that? I mean, does every...
GROSS: Yeah, I kind of do, and I'm not a writer, but I've always had this kind of, like, narration in my head of what's going on.
TAN: Yeah, exactly.
TAN: Running commentary, you know (laughter).
TAN: Color commentary.
GROSS: Did you feel this sense of guilt, like, you're lying to yourself, to the congregation, to your father and to God?
TAN: Especially to God, you know, because I knew that in it he knew, you know? He knew he was lying, that I hadn't heard him. He hadn't spoken to me yet. But I thought it was what was good about this, you know, my father talking about the voice and you're having to have this belief and make the declaration of the belief that what you had to do was really know what you believe and you had to really feel it. And I didn't feel it in the way he wanted me to feel it, but it gave me that sense early in life this importance of belief. The difference is, in my father's world, the beliefs are handed to you and you were told this is what you must do in your life based on these edicts that are issued by the Bible. It's very literal. And I reached an age where not only was I rebellious because it was teenager, my father and my brother died. Now, that's going to kick into gear a really huge rebellion. And I got to discard all these beliefs, I was forced to, in order to survive.
GROSS: So when you were growing up with your mother's stories about ghosts and your father's belief in God, did you see the difference between ghosts and God? Or did they kind of combine in your mind as two things that - two different forces that were powerful and unseen and mysterious that you couldn't quite comprehend?
TAN: They were sort of a, you know, the same kind of force, but they were a different, say, genre. One was magical realism and the other was a different kind of magical realism. I don't know if I can call Christianity realism. And, you know, it's not that I'm pooh-poohing people who are Christians, but what I - one of the differences with my mother, of course, is that there was a kind of faith that was guided by the unknown and - or something called luck or bad luck or she would guess sometimes it was karma or feng shui, whereas my father's sense of fate was really based very strongly on faith.
And those would make the decisions. There would be miracles. You would have blessings come into your life, and if you didn't, you had to be patient and God would show you the way. So I grew up with these, you know, two different versions of fate. And, you know, I would say that at a certain age I would prefer, of course, the Christian one that wasn't full of bad things because in my mother's world fate also had to do with curses. And you feel kind of helpless when there's a curse going on in your life.
GROSS: Did you hear a lot of biblical language? Did your father read from the Bible a lot at home? And were there passages that stood out in your mind? And I'm also wondering if there are ones that seemed very important in either a beautiful or an ominous way that you didn't quite understand and maybe misinterpreted. I'll offer as an example (laughter) when I was growing up and I heard the psalm with the valley of the shadow of death, which they used to read in school all the time because this was before bible readings were banned from public schools. I always thought that sounds really powerful - the valley of the shadow of death.
But there was also the valley of fatigue on these ads for something called Geritol that were - it was supposed to be this tonic to, like, lift you out of the afternoon sleepy slump. And so I didn't understand. I was very young, and I didn't understand the difference between the valley of the shadow of death and the valley of fatigue. They both sound really, like, ominous to me and maybe connected in this way that I couldn't comprehend.
TAN: When I think of that psalm, what I picture is a pile of dead people, you know?
GROSS: (Laughter) That's terrifying.
TAN: I know. I grew up listening to this from the time I was a baby. All our friends were Christians. I heard - I sang hymns. I think one of the ways that I learned to read is that I was trying to read the same words that were in the hymns - God, amen, Christ, whatever. And you know, so my father's language to people in fact was these quotes from the Bible. May God bless you and keep you. And I read those now in his letters, and I was disappointed. I was so proud of him when I was a kid. But I was disappointed because it seemed to me they were like pat phrases. And that's what I grew up with. They were very comfortable things to say. You knew exactly, you know, the right sentiments.
Now, I do have a favorite passage. And it's - I think that it's Paul's second letter to the Corinthians, and it's about love. And I wanted to keep that in mind - that this is the quality of Christianity that people should not forget, you know, that Christianity means love. And it's not intolerance. It's not about - you don't believe what I believe, and so you know, you're cut out. You don't get to go beyond the red-velvet ropes and get into heaven.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Amy Tan. She's the author of "The Joy Luck Club" and "The Valley Of Amazement" and a new memoir that's called "Where The Past Begins." We're going to take a short break here and be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BROTHERS OSBORNE SONG, "21 SUMMER")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is writer Amy Tan, who's best known for her books "The Joy Luck Club" and "The Valley Of Amazement." Her new book is a memoir. It's called "Where The Past Begins."
When your father and your brother were dying of brain tumors - and they died within a year of each other - your mother brought in faith healers and karma adjustors. Was your father aware of that?
TAN: Not really. I think that he - she was able to hide a lot of these beliefs from him until after he died or was pretty close to dying and his cognitive abilities were impaired. But she would call in these feng shui people to see if there were imbalances in our house. She would count bad things that had happened in the neighborhood and to different neighbors and say, I should have seen this. She called in people who were babbling in tongues. And I knew at that point she'd gone crazy. She brought pot stickers to the cemetery to give to my brother.
She saw signs in everything. And I would say the signs are what a lot of people would see when a loved one's dying. You know, you feel something. You believe something when somebody squeezes your hand. And doctors will say that's a reflex, but my mother took it as a sign - a really huge sign as great as, you know, my father believing in miracles.
GROSS: So your mother believed that there might be a curse on the family...
GROSS: ...That caused the death of your brother and your father and that the same curse might also affect your mother in the future and you and your younger brother. Did you believe that? Did you worry that there was a curse that might come and get you, too? You were 15 when your father and brother died.
TAN: I both believed it and rejected it. You know, when you have a brother who's dying and a father who's dying and you see them and their head is - you know, been shaved and they have stitches like railroad tracks across them, you're scared. And so if somebody says, you know, there's a curse and this is going to happen to you, you end up half believing it. And then you push it away. You cannot believe - you cannot imagine yourself looking like that.
So I also tried very hard to reject that. But I would say that I believed it more than I didn't because I was fearful. And whenever we had a headache or whenever anything went wrong, my brother and I would look at each other, and we would wonder if this curse was beginning again.
GROSS: So you must have thought a lot about death and your own mortality when you were in your mid-teens.
TAN: I did. You know, and I - it started then. It's confronting me every day. I'd go to the hospital. I'd hear people talking about it. But I also heard a lot about the opposite, which was the miracle. I will say, as a consequence of these experiences with death at a very early age, death is something I think about every single day and not with a grimness, not with the sense of the curse that my mother had instilled in us but with this notion you have to think about your life every day.
And is what you're doing meaningful? Did you discover something new today? What do you believe at this moment? And I think it's a wonderful perspective of life. I mean, people think that I'm paranoid or - and I think they're avoiding the - you know, the inevitability that this is going to happen. But this is true, I think, of a lot of writers. You think about death, or you think about obsessions. You - I mean, you have obsessions that others would not have.
And this fed, I think, directly into my writing when I look at the nature of a narrative, that you are making certain decisions leading up to a point that is a belief. Or you're discovering that belief and whether you think that what has happened is coincidental. Or is it a kind of fate? Or is it inevitability because of character? And all of this early background of what to believe in is part of my fiction.
GROSS: Let's talk about your mother. Her mother, your mother's mother, was a concubine. What does being a concubine mean? What did it mean?
TAN: A man had a first wife, and then he could have other wives. They were referred to with the title, you know, No. 2 wife, No. 3 wife, but essentially they were mistresses. And they lived in the house. Concubines were a very low position. Wives were, you know, right there in society, and concubines were not. Now, if you were a concubine, you were not really fit to remarry somebody who was in a - you know, a well-to-do family.
So my grandmother who had been, we thought, the first wife of a scholar now was somebody quite low. And there was a shame associated with - my mother used to cry about this and say, you don't understand; this was China. You're American. This was a shame we could never wash off our backs. You know, this is a shame I still have. And it's taken me a long time to realize, you know, you can't look at these from an American point of view. No, you were a victim of society. You know, of course it's washed off your back. This is an emotion, I realize, that you can't - it's just stuck in you.
GROSS: So your grandmother was a concubine, but her husband was a wealthy, you know, privileged man. But she wasn't the - outside of living in that home, she did not have that privilege herself. She was considered lowly in the Chinese system.
TAN: Well, actually, she would have been lowly in the society outside of the home. She was actually the favorite in the house. She had the best room. She bossed around the other concubines. She was the one who sat in the room at night with the husband and smoked opium and, you know, got to ride around in a carriage. He promised her a house in Shanghai that she could live in. Just my mother and she could live in this house and be away from the other concubines. So even though she was a concubine, to this man, she was the No. 1 wife.
GROSS: Is this all information you got from your mother? And was your mother a reliable source since your grandmother died when your mother was 9?
TAN: My mother was half-reliable. And I had to look at this in terms of a 9-year-old girl looking at her mother and wanting to believe many things about her that were pure and elevated. And then I had to look at this other evidence. Why was she given the best room? And people told me that. Several people told me that. Why would they tell me that?
And then I talked to another woman who said - now, this is all recent. I talked to another woman, and she said, oh, your grandmother - she was very loud. She had a lot of opinions. And if you didn't believe her, you didn't follow her, you were scared later. Now, that sounds like my mother. And so I do believe that, and I believe that my grandmother was that way and that she wasn't considered number four in the household. She was the favorite.
GROSS: My guest is Amy Tan. Her new memoir is called "Where The Past Begins." We'll talk more after a break. And Maureen Corrigan will review a new nonfiction book about a deadly London smog. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF KENNY BARRON'S "RINGO OIWAKE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Amy Tan, the author of the novels "The Joy Luck Club," "The Kitchen God's Wife" and "The Valley Of Amazement." Her new book is a memoir titled "Where The Past Begins." In writing about her own life, she writes about her family. Her parents were immigrants from China. Her mother's mother was a concubine.
Your grandmother, your mother's mother, killed herself by overdosing on opium in 1925. That left your mother an orphan pretty much at the age of 9 or at least motherless. And then your mother later married a man she came to believe was evil. He forced her to have sex with him. She - how many how many children did she have with him?
TAN: She had four living, one stillborn and three abortions.
GROSS: And one of them died of dysentery.
TAN: The son. He was - he had dysentery, and the doctor was playing with her husband, playing mahjong, and they didn't want to interrupt the game, and my mother was holding onto the baby - 3-year-old. I think it was 3. And he died in her arms. She said it was very fast. It happened within, you know, 24 hours.
GROSS: Her husband would bring his girlfriends home. So...
TAN: From day one - day one of their marriage he would bring these girlfriends home.
GROSS: She went to be with your father. She kind of ran away to be with your father. Her husband tracked her down, brought her back. She was in prison for a while with prostitutes because she'd run away. But the way you describe it, the laws changed. The marriage laws changed when the communists were coming to power so that a man was no longer legally allowed to have several wives and a woman was allowed to initiate divorce proceedings against her husband, which is what your mother did. Do I have that right?
TAN: In a way.
TAN: I think it was still up to the - the husband had more say in this than the woman. He had to decide. You know, because of this new change in the law, he had to decide who was married to. And my mother played - you know, she went through a ploy with the help of other relatives where she caught him in a public place with his concubine and said to him in front of all these people, who is your wife? Which one of us is your wife? And the concubine standing next to him had been living with him for quite a while and also was a very strong woman, gave him a stare, and he had to say she's my wife. And my mother said, fine, sign here - she had the paper with her - sign here. I am no longer your wife.
GROSS: That's a great story (laughter).
TAN: My mother was - you know, she was one of these people who was prepared for everything. She was so clever. You know, I think about this now that she could find ways to get out of situations. You know, she wouldn't be trapped. She saw what happened to her mother. Both of them hated being controlled by people. They hated condescension. And it's a trait that they passed on to me. I see that. I see why it's so strong because it was so strong in my grandmother that she killed herself.
GROSS: So, you know, your grandmother killed herself when your mother was 9, so your mother was exposed to suicide at a very young age. And then, throughout your childhood, your mother threatened to kill herself. She nearly threw herself out of the car when all of the children and your father were in the car and she was in the front passenger seat. Do you think that her mother's death created suicide as a constant possibility in her own mind?
TAN: Absolutely because oftentimes in her threat she would say that she wanted to join her mother. She said when she described the funeral of her mother that she was trying to fly off with her mother. She would have these - this feeling. It was like an uncontrollable feeling that she needed to leave. And sometimes, she said she was going back to China, but most of the time, she said she was going to kill herself. So it was always with anger, and this would seethe for days, and she would not speak to anybody. And because - you know, I would say, you know, there were times when she would say it, you know, once a week or more. And then there would be relatively peaceful times when she didn't say it for a month or two. But when she did, we always had to take it seriously because she had tried. You'll only need to have your mother try once before you are quaking every single time she says that.
GROSS: You think your mother was mentally ill? Did she ever have a diagnosis?
TAN: She never had - she never saw a doctor about this mental illness, and I do think she had one. I would say it was depression and she might have had a personality also that my grandmother had, maybe what people would call borderline. I don't really know all these terms and what they mean, but I have a number of friends who are psychiatrists, and I think part of the meaning is that whatever she is feeling you are supposed to feel. And that I found to be true. It was really one of the ways that I was able to get along with her where I could stop these suicidal tendencies in her. I would say, I understood her, that when she was angry I would be angry. I would be furious to match her anger, and that was the only thing that would calm her down.
GROSS: I think it's really hard for a lot of daughters to break away from their mothers and to differentiate their own personality from their mothers and their own destiny. But for you, the way you've described it where you had to kind of feel what your mother was feeling in part to, like, help protect her from suicide, was it hard for you - more hard than - more difficult than it might ordinarily have been for you to break away and establish who you were and what you thought your direction should be since you'd had mastered the art of feeling what your mother was feeling?
TAN: I think it was hard only in the sense that I was feeling I had betrayed her. I no longer wanted to feel and be her compatriot in fury and depression. When I wrote the first book, "The Joy Luck Club," I immersed myself back into her mind but in a way that I could understand her. I didn't have to just take the exterior part, the manifestation of anger that came out of this subtext that I didn't know about. I could live her life again. I could - it was as if I was there, the witness in the room, and somebody who became her in the fiction. And I knew her. I get - my mother sensed that. She - that was the only book she read of mine. And she said at the end of that you know me. I don't have to say anymore.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Amy Tan. She has a new memoir called "Where The Past Begins." We're going to take a short break, then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF AVISHAI COHEN'S "GBEDE TEMIN")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us my guest is Amy Tan, who's the author of "The Joy Luck Club" and "The Valley Of Amazement" and the new memoir, "Where The Past Begins."
So many of your stories are about mothers and daughters, but you decided against having children. And I'd be interested in hearing why. And I ask this from the perspective - I don't have children either. So I'm not asking you in a like, how could you possibly decide not to have children? You know, I'm not asking this in a scolding way.
TAN: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, right.
GROSS: I'm just kind of interested in why people choose to and choose not to have children.
TAN: I think the default question should be, why did you choose to have children? Why do you choose, you know, to have children in the future? Because the very reasons, the very answers to that would be the reasons why you would not have children. If you don't feel you have to pass on your genetic DNA for a custom child you would say, OK, well, you know, I don't need to have a child for that reason. If you didn't feel that you needed to have this exquisite, unfathomable kind of love that you would have for no other person in your life, then you didn't need to have kids.
If you didn't necessarily see that your career was as important as having a child and that experience, maybe you wouldn't have children. Those were the reasons why I decided not to have children, as well as the feeling that if I had been a mother, I would have raised them with the same anxieties, obsessions and anger that my mother gave to me.
GROSS: You mentioned in your memoir that you were pregnant once. And you didn't particularly want to be a mother. You didn't feel like you had the money or security yet to be a parent. And you didn't know what to do. You didn't know if you should have an abortion or have the child. And you told your mother. And what your mother said was really interesting. I'd like you to describe what she said.
TAN: My mother and I were sitting in a car on a rainy day about to go into a restaurant, and I told her what had happened. I said I was really not sure I wanted to have a baby, but I had also been on vacation when this happened. And I had been having a cocktail, you know, in the morning and the evening. And my mother - and I said we're - we don't have money. We can barely make our rent. My mother looked at me and said, if you want to have the baby, nothing can stop you from having this baby. You can take care of this baby. No problem. And then she said, with a different look on her face, but if you do not want this baby no one - not your husband, not your mother-in-law, not your friends - can tell you, you must have this baby.
And then she told me what had had happened to her in China. She was, in essence, telling me I had to make my own choice. I felt so grateful, you know, that not just that she was my mother, but that she had given me this understanding of what I should feel, that I had to take control of my own life and make this decision. Ultimately, I did not have to make that decision. I had a miscarriage almost, you know, like, immediately, four days later or something.
But I went through the agony that I think most women go through when they are trying to decide whether to have an abortion. People think it's so easy or that, you know, you just do it and you - next day you forget. I have never forgotten. Every year I think about who that child would have been. And I think that it would have been a daughter. And I like to think that she would have given me a really hard time and made my life miserable for a certain number of years.
GROSS: Was part of what your mother told you that she had had abortions when she was in China?
TAN: She told me the reasons why she had these abortions. She had a man who put a gun to her head to make her have sex. She was...
GROSS: Was this her husband?
TAN: ...She had - her first husband, not my father.
GROSS: Right. Right.
TAN: Her first husband. It was an arranged marriage, OK? She didn't love him. She was told this is a very good marriage. You're the daughter of a concubine. Why wouldn't you do it? And so she had this cruel sociopath for a husband. And she would have these babies. And he would come back from his flight missions as a pilot and with gonorrhea. And so after a while, she started having abortions. She said she was like a machine. She was a sex machine for him. And she did this. She said she had to do this. She made the decision. And my circumstances was - they were nothing like hers. I was married to a very kind man. But it was that notion. You decide what your life is, and no one can tell you what that is.
GROSS: I'm wondering what your understanding was of being female when you were growing up because, you know, your mother was the daughter of a concubine. She was married to this abusive, monstrous-sounding man. And your father was a Baptist minister who, you know, had a lot of things that were off-limits to him, you know, because of the biblical prescriptions against them. And I don't know what his idea of being a woman was. But you're - again, there's just, like, two different sets of influences you're growing up with, two really different kinds of brains and ways of seeing the world. So what were the messages you were given at home about what it meant to be a girl?
TAN: My mother sort of - she subjugated her life to her husband, my father. She was the - tried to be the minister's wife and not wear fancy clothes. She didn't smoke. She was trying to be pious. She prayed. But when he died, all of that went away. And I saw that she was a different person. She didn't pray anymore. At dinner, she - when we were in a restaurant and there was - in Switzerland, there was free wine on the table, and we wanted Coke. And she said, no, this is free. You drink this. You know, my father, this was, you know, one of the sins. She didn't care. What she told me, though, was more important. I don't remember the exact age, but my mother said to me, you are not as good as a man. She said, you are better, and you have to work harder to prove to them that you are.
She told me a lot of messages like that. And the other one was the repeated one that had to also do with choosing what to do with your own body, and that was, no one can choose your life. No one can look down on you. You know, they might look down on you, but you cannot believe it. That is not who you are. You have to have your own way of escaping from somebody who's bad, you know, whether you do that through a job - she felt a job was very, very important. And she said, the minute - you know, don't count on looks because that's going to be over by time you're 30.
TAN: She always told me, actually, I wasn't beautiful. I was sort of average looking. So don't count on that. And also, when you're 30, it's really going to be over. So, I mean, if a guy's going to...
GROSS: These are real self-esteem boosters.
TAN: Yeah, yeah, these are - you know, I cried when she told me. I said, am I beautiful to Chinese people? No, you're not. You're, you know - you're just average. She's - and she's - you know, I was upset. She said, why should you be upset? Look what happened to me. I was beautiful, and it ruined my life. You know, so, OK - great consolation there.
GROSS: So one more thing - your mother believed in ghosts. Your mother died in the late '90s. When you write about her now in memoir form, not disguised in fiction, do you feel like she knows what you're saying about her and that you have to be careful what you say?
TAN: Absolutely, she knows. She's right there. She's my - you know, my truth detector. I was about to say something else, but she's my truth detector. And I do - you know, I have thought about what she might've thought, or what she's thinking or what my grandmother is thinking about the things that I'm writing. But they were so much about the truth. It's no longer about what society thinks - that, absolutely, I think that they would be not only approving, but grateful that I am saying the things that were true in our lives.
GROSS: Amy Tan, it's been great to talk with you again. Thank you so much.
TAN: Thank you.
GROSS: Amy Tan's new memoir is called "Where The Past Begins." After a break, Maureen Corrigan will review "Death In The Air: The True Story Of A Serial Killer, The Great London Smog, And The Strangling Of A City." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF STEFON HARRIS AND BLACKOUT'S "UNTIL")
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The hurricanes and wildfires that have dominated the news this fall make a new nonfiction book about a deadly London smog seem particularly timely. Here's our book critic Maureen Corrigan's review of "Death In The Air."
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: A real pea souper, a London particular - those nicknames for the quintessential foggy day in London town always make it sound so quaint, an impression that's been intensified in art and literature. Certainly, the London of Sherlock Holmes would be a lot less mysterious without that obscuring fog. And impressionist painter Claude Monet, who famously depicted the houses of Parliament shrouded in mist, said that without the fog, London would not be a beautiful city. It is the fog that gives it its magnificent breadth.
Monet was talking about an added dimension to the city. But breath - as in human breath - was precisely what the fog stole from London in the terrible winter of 1952. For five days in December of that year, London was blanketed by a yellow, toxic vapor that smothered its inhabitants. By the time this poisonous air mass moved on and death records were correctly tallied, some 12,000 people would be recognized as fatalities of what was called the Great Smog of 1952.
Journalist Kate Winkler Dawson has written an intriguing book about the silent disaster, which was born out of a perfect storm of freak weather patterns and environmental ignorance. The moist air of the Gulf Stream stalled for days over London that winter, long enough for there to be a deadly buildup of soot, sulfur dioxide and other poisons emitted from the cheap sea coal known as nutty slack that most Londoners used to heat their flats and houses.
The great smog also gave off a great stink, acrid and burning. In fact, on the cover of Dawson's book, there's an arresting black-and-white photograph of a young woman wearing a pearl choker and a tweedy-looking suit with her chiffon scarf wrapped around her mouth like a face mask. That photograph is no doubt meant to be suggestive of Dawson's other disturbing subject here. "Death In The Air" attempts to be a kind of true-crime book about two stranglers on the loose in London that winter - one an environmental killer, the smog, the other the infamous serial killer John Reginald Christie, who lured women to his Notting Hill flat and murdered them by suffocation. He is responsible for at least eight deaths. Those parallel plot lines never quite intersect. "Death In The Air" would have been an even more compelling book without Dawson's somewhat forced attempt to make connections between these two London stranglers.
Another strike against the Christie story is that his grisly career has been exhaustively documented in books and films. The great smog, however, was underreported when it happened, and it's still not all that widely known. It seems an even more timely tale in our own age of extreme weather and environmental catastrophes. Dawson cuts a precise narrative path through the smog by marshaling together an array of government and newspaper reports and interviews with people who lived through those terrible five days when trains, buses and ships on the Thames came to a standstill, and crime was rampant. Most affecting are the first-person recollections of a woman who was 13 years old that winter.
Rosemary Sargent's working-class neighborhood had been bombed during the Blitz, and she and her siblings had been separated from their beloved father for years during the war. When the great smog began, Rosemary's father, his lungs already weakened by war work, started gasping for air. She and her mother stumbled to the doctor's office to get a nitroglycerin tablet. By the time they returned, Rosemary's father had died. He had to be laid out in the parlor of their small house for two weeks.
As Dawson says, one of the most astonishing things about this deadly fog was who it first alarmed - not politicians, reporters or even doctors, but undertakers. Across London, funeral directors reported a surge in bodies, so many that the demand for caskets was insatiable. When the smog finally lifted, it took months, even years, for officials to realize that the thousands of deaths attributed to heart disease or the flu were really caused by the toxic air. In 1956, Britain passed the milestone Clean Air Act, which tightened restrictions on industrial smoke and banned coal in many houses and industries. Dawson says it was the first comprehensive legislation to attack air pollution. The number of fog events and deaths immediately dropped. The lessons for the present, Dawson suggests, are as clear as the air in front of our eyes.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Death In The Air" by Kate Winkler Dawson. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about vice president Mike Pence with New Yorker Washington correspondent Jane Mayer. Her new article, "The President Pence Delusion," takes off from this premise - many of President Trump's critics are hoping Trump doesn't serve his full term, but what kind of president would Mike Pence make? Mayer writes about how he became an evangelical Christian, his political career on the far-right and his backing from the billionaire Koch brothers, who are the subject of her book "Dark Money." I hope you'll join us.
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