Vern Sneider’s A Pail of Oysters is the most important English-language novel ever written about Taiwan. Yet despite critical acclaim, this exciting and controversial book has long been unavailable to readers. Unlike Sneider’s previous novel, the humorous bestseller The Teahouse of the August Moon, this 1953 publication has a dark, menacing tone. Set against the political repression and poverty of the White Terror era, A Pail of Oysters tells the moving story of nineteen-year-old villager Li Liu and his quest to recover his family’s stolen kitchen god. Li Liu’s fate becomes entwined with that of American journalist Ralph Barton, who, in trying to report honestly about KMT rule of the island, investigates the situation beyond the propaganda, learns of a massacre, and is drawn into the world of the Formosan underground.
The book opens with Li Liu, who identifies as an aborigine, struggling desperately to avoid having his pail of oysters being looted by soldiers as he hurries home with his treasure, which can purchase much-needed high quality rice and medicine. The reader is drawn immediately into the story: the marauding KMT soldiers stripping the countryside of everything they can carry, the lack of the basic necessities of life, the brutal family obligations of younger sons, the rampant selling of young women into sex slavery, and the savagery of the KMT regime, are all brought to life in spare, accessible prose. His characters are human beings who never become the stock characters so common in fiction, and his understanding of Taiwan is deep.
As good as the book itself is Jonathan Benda’s outstanding and informative introduction (well worth the price of admission, Benda has a longer piece here), which discusses the history of the work and its subsequent suppression, including McCarthyite attacks on Sneider himself by US government officials. One noted:
“Published last fall, this thoroughly dishonest book received rave reviews. In the Saturday Review of Literature it was reviewed by one Pat Frank, who stated that the book cast “a bright light thrust into the infect peritoneum of Formosa…it is a true light.”*
Yes, indeed, it casts a true light. Camphor has also cleaned up many of the small typos and other errors from the first edition. This edition shines.
At $2.99, this story of early post-war history in Taiwan should not be missed. I cried my eyes out at the beautiful ending of this sad, chilling, and revealing account of the horrors of the KMT regime. You will too.