Monday, August 26, 2013

Book Review: Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon

     I decided to read Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon, and as a consequence have had “Getting to Know You” stuck in my head for three weeks. But this is no fairy tale musical, and Landon, using Anna Leonowens own books and descriptions, gives a colorful and detailed view of Siam in the mid 1800’s.
     After the death of her husband and the closing of her school in Singapore, Anna had few choices in how to feed herself and her two children. She had two offers of marriage but rejected them both; instead, she took the job as governess to the royal children and concubines in Siam. Her arrival was not very auspicious; the king, mercurial, forgot for quite a while that he had wanted a governess. When he did remember, he tried to make Anna stay in the palace, and her refusal threw him into a fit that forced Anna to spend several more months waiting to start her new job.
     We read about the difficulties of such a life: King Mongkut, in this tale,  was a right tyrant. Anna also felt the harem and the city of concubines to be extremely oppressive. She found herself, often unwillingly, being the intercessor for many of the less favored inhabitants. She was often in conflict with the king, and at a couple points found herself in danger as a result. The daily struggle of teaching women who were taught only to be pretty and flattering left her frustrated.
     Yet we see glimpses of something better. The king, tyrant that he was, had a soft side, particularly for children. He was also occasionally self-aware enough to know he was mistaken, although he rarely admitted. Anna herself comes to be known for her fearlessness, although she admits she was often afraid but never showed it, and for her charity to the poor inhabitants.
     There has been controversy over the story. Many claim that King Mongkut, having spent years in a Buddhist monastery, could never have done any of the terrible things Anna said. (It’s a bit of a silly argument, given how every other religion is excoriated for hypocrisy at one point or another.) A better argument is that Mongkut’s successor stated that the foundation for many of the changes he made came from his father, indicating Mongkut was not as bad as he was perceived to be.
     However much you think that Anna’s tales were fabricated, it’s still an interesting look at the difficulties that a young single mother would have in those days. Her life, what we know of it, was still one of bravery and hard work.

Note: Apparently Blogger no longer likes me to copy and paste from Microsoft Word. Why?

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