River of Smoke, by Amitav Ghosh

I found the beginning of this book a bit confusing. It starts in the Nicobar Islands and the characters speak in a sort of pidgin. I am glad that I hung in there because it was a very interesting book on several levels. The main part of the book was the lead up to the Opium Wars from several points of view, including those of an Indian opium smuggler and a British painter Robin who was raised in India. There is also a woman botanist, Paulette who  corresponds with her childhood friend Robin.

I found myself comparing the opium smuggling into China to our own modern problems with drug smuggling. The Chinese were quite reasonable in their requests for the British smugglers to desist from the opium trade. They would have still made good money with the rest of the China trade in tea, silk, china and botanticals. It was almost unbelievable as to how stubborn the British were about the opium trade. They complained that they and their investors would be ruined. They were not forcing the Chinese to buy and use opium so were not contributing to the ruin of thousands of people’s lives, in their own way of thinking. They objected to the theoretically barbaric Chinese government disrupting their Free Trade. The Chinese government was actually more logical and reasonable than the British privateers were in terms of giving them plenty of chances to desist prior to imposing consequences.

I didn’t realize until near the end of the book that the author did extensive research on the Opium Wars. He used actual letters, diaries, copies of Chinese correspondence and edicts to shape the speeches of his characters. I also didn’t realize how many plants were introduced from Canton, including Tiger Lilies, azaleas, hydrangeas, rhododendrons, Heavenly Bamboo, and many more. I am now interested to read another of his books called Sea of Poppies.

Ghosh, Amitav. (2011). River of Smoke. New York: Straus and Giroux. 522 pages. ISBN: 978-0-374-17423-1.



About KLevenson

I am Teacher Librarian at Piedmont High School in the San Francisco East Bay. I am a part time reference Librarian I for the San Francisco Public Library. I have a Masters in Library and Information Sciences from San Jose State and a Teacher Librarian credential in addition to my teaching credential in Science. My first MA was from Harvard in Archaeology. My students teach me something new every time I am with them!
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