The memoir in the attic: Canton Elegy

Wouldn’t that be a dream to find an old memoir hidden in a trunk in the attic? To turn the yellowed pages of time and find an amazing story of a great-grandfather’s or grandmother’s everyday life long ago when times were tougher and the world was changing so rapidly? Well it does happen.

The latest I’ve heard of is Canton Elegy, the title so far. London writer Howard Webster married a Chinese-American girl and was shown the pages of her grandfather’s memoir the family had put away for 50-some years, not knowing what to do with it. Webster found the story beautiful, moving, and harrowing, documenting in English-second-language the journey of Stephen Jin-Nom Lee from poverty to being a colonel in the Canton military, through war and revolution. Agent Susan Mears says, “Effectively it’s a male version of Jung Chang’s Wild Swans but much more of an engaging read.”

How nice we live in a time when publishing has never been easier. In Webster’s case, the memoir, which he edited and presented to Mears, was attractive to a trade publisher, but if it wasn’t he could have gone with a small press or indie-published it himself.

My mother wishes she hadn’t lost her diary in a firestorm during WWII, and what a dream that would have been to have her read it to me. But, at least she remembered a lot and we’ve now got her Cherry Blossoms in Twilight memoir published. Stories like the Lee family’s do happen frequently, but usually it’s a diary or journal that’s found. Makes you wish everybody kept one.

WWI illustrated diary found
Old diary reveals Japanese and Jews in WWII
400-year-old diary of witch hunts
What to do with an old diary you find


About moonbridgebooks

Co-author of Cherry Blossoms in Twilight, a WWII Japan memoir of her mother's childhood; author of Poems That Come to Mind, for caregivers of dementia patients; Co-author/Editor of Battlefield Doc, a medic's memoir of combat duty during the Korean War; life writing enthusiast; loves history and culture (especially Japan), poetry, and cats
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3 Responses to The memoir in the attic: Canton Elegy

  1. I’d love to have a diary or something of my mother’s – and hopefully I’ll have something to leave behind for my children.

  2. There is a song by Rayn Adams called Houses On Hill, it addresses such a wonderful find, love it. Also I have six cats! A delight.

  3. Yes, Lynn, I think any kind of writing whether diary, letters, or a hand-written recipe book would be a beautiful thing to leave for children. Imagine finding something like that after a parent or grandparent has gone from this earth – what a treasure!

    I looked that song up, Trudy, by Ryan Adams, and it’s sad and sweet. Perfumed letters found in the attic… Your house must be more of a madhouse than mine with all those kitties – we have three adorable troublemakers now.

    Heard another “finding” story today on NPR of how some papers were found in an old trunk in the attic of an old house about to be destroyed. Historic papers that belonged to the first Harvard-educated black lawyer. Never know what those attics hide!

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