STARRED REVIEW
August 2020

Two Trees Make a Forest

By Jessica J. Lee
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Like the sequoias of the U.S. Pacific Northwest, red and yellow cedars in Taiwan are so huge that just two of them, writes environmental historian Jessica J. Lee, can look and feel like a whole forest. She finds them as she hikes through the mountainous spine of the country where her beloved grandfather Gong was sent home to die, alone in the dementia of Alzheimer’s. Lee still grieves his solitary death and is determined to learn more about his life from before he and Po, her “irascible, difficult grandmother,” became Canadian immigrants. In Taiwan, where Lee is both stranger and descendant, her compass is a barely decipherable letter left behind by Gong, written as his mind disintegrated. Two Trees Make a Forest: In Search of My Family’s Past Among Taiwan’s Mountains and Coasts charts her ardent quest to discover and reconcile her family’s past with her need to claim an ancestral home.

Her journey is a challenge. Taiwan’s language is almost as foreign to Lee as its landscape—volcanic fumaroles, towering peaks enveloped in fog and the constant threat of mudslides and earthquakes. Lee studies the calligraphy of both Taiwanese and Chinese (her mother speaks Mandarin) and sprinkles her memoir with the illustrations that help her find her way through the two languages. Still, as she visits her mother’s crowded childhood home city of Taipei, Lee’s biracial features and diffident tongue reveal her as a foreigner. 

Taiwan has a complicated history, explored and exploited by Europeans and tossed back and forth between Japan and China. Lee learns that Gong was a fighter pilot with the famous Flying Tigers, risking his life on secret missions and rewarded for his bravery. Injured in a 1969 crash that should have killed him, he could no longer fly and left Taiwan for the promise of flying in Canada, only to become a factory janitor instead. 

Lee finds her own ways of imprinting her rediscovered homeland on her spirit. Using her skills as a scholar, she identifies the many species she finds as she hikes and bikes through the countryside, some existing nowhere else in the world. As Taiwan reveals itself, Lee comes to a kind of peace. Gong’s past and her present, so evocatively examined, suggest the forest she needed to find.

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Two Trees Make a Forest

Two Trees Make a Forest

By Jessica J. Lee
Catapult
ISBN 9781646220007

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