Three Friends, Two Countries, One Priceless jewel
1937 China; the Japanese Imperial Army is chewing up China. Three middle-aged friends, Westerners, who have lived in China for decades, are about to lose everything to the onslaught. Leave China or die. As their world collapses around them, a fur trader from New York, a Russian, and a Rabbi from Germany, learn that a race of Chinese Jews is about to become victims of a German and Japanese alliance to acquire a valuable ruby, supposedly hidden in their village of Kaifeng.
The three friends embark on one last adventure before leaving China, to save the Jews of Kaifeng and the jewel. Can they reach Kaifeng before the alliance bent on the destruction of the village gets to them? It’s a deadly pursuit across 1937 China, through Japanese controlled territory, Chinese bandits, and countless dangers and obstacles. The only clues to its location are written in a cryptic, twenty-year-old diary of a disillusioned Chinese Rabbi; the Journal of Rabbi Levy Wang. The three friends are tested to the extreme in a desperate attempt to warn their friends and find the jewel.
David Harris Lang, a current resident of Hong Kong, has lived and worked in Asia much of his life. Besides being a prolific author of Asian-based thrillers, he is an international architect who brings an indelible sense of place’ to his writing as well as a deep understanding of Asian cultures, locales, and customs. His vivid fight scenes come from a life-long practice of the martial arts.
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The Journal of Rabbi Levy Wang is an action-adventure that at times struck me as a fantasy novel, too. It is set in China in the late 1930’s at the time Japan was in the process of trying to conquer China. Many of us Americans who may have some familiarity with the growth of the Axis Powers may be more familiar with events in Europe and have a sense that Japan attacking Pearl Harbor was an event that came out of nowhere. That is not the case. Part of the premise of this novel is the early stages of Germany and Japan courting each other even as they remained cautious allies.
Towards the front of the book the author tells a history behind the existence and journey of a fabulous ruby, starting by playing fast and loose with the retelling of the Moses and Aaron leading the Children of Israel out of Egypt story. It ends up in a Chinese Jewish community of Kaifeng. Such a place did exist in the 1930’s. However, as the Rabbi Levy Wang questions his faith and seeks answers, he goes on a quest and takes the ruby with him. The only clues to the location where the good rabbi hid it are recorded in his journal found twenty years after his death.
The story follows the plethora of adventures of the three main Western characters—an American, a Russian and a German Jew. Juwu, a Chinese member of a resistance organization, was a fourth honorary member of this group on the quest. These middle-aged men used their wits and persistence more than brute strength to meet and overcome the challenges they faced in an effort to find the ruby. Along the way they met a wide variety of characters, helpful and not so helpful. Many of the cast of characters were Chinese and Japanese with a smattering of Germans and other Americans for good measure. It took a little doing for me to follow some of the names to keep track of the host of characters, but once I was able to identify the Chinese names from the Japanese, it became easier to keep track who was on what side.
Some characters came across as mystical, as if I had stumbled upon a fantasy novel. Some were contemplative, giving a sense of the religious teachings of China. Others were downright bizarre. They were all entertaining and they intertwined and moved the plot forward at warp speed. I especially enjoyed the scenes that took place in the mountainous regions, and recalling images of the mountains of China, I could picture myself there.
The author drew upon some of the stories told by his father and grandfather who were fur traders in China in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Also, he has lived in Japan and China and is currently living in Hong Kong. His understanding of these Asian cultures comes through in the book. This book is not for the faint of heart—there are some violent acts described—and the language was rough in spots. This was not a romance novel. It was fast-paced, laced with subtle humor in spots, and I enjoyed it very much.
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