Finding Iris Chang by Paula Kamen is an engaging book if at times a bit disjointed in the way it is organized. This look at Kamen’s friendship with Chang, as she investigates her death, gives unique insight to Chang who was one of the most important historians/writers of our times. If you are unfamiliar with Chang, she is the author of The Rape Of Nanking which detailed in gruesome fashion the slaughter of nearly 300,000 Chinese in Nanking by Japanese soldiers. It was an important work that helped bring Japanese war crimes during WWII into focus. She also authored Thread of The Silkworm about how the U.S. allowed bigotry to cloud their judgement and they ended up sending one of their best rocket scientists to China, handing them a missile program in the process. She also wrote The Chinese In America.
Iris Chang committed suicide a decade ago, in a car along a California road. At the time, the world was surprised and many considered the possibility it hadn’t been suicide at all. There were clues that powerful forces wanted her dead. Her research and writings had tainted the reputation of many.
Kamen was a life-long friend of Chang’s and this book is her journey to find out what really happened but what the reader ends up with is a mixed bag. The book misses in that Kamen really never digs deep to tell us what Chang was going through in those last moments. For instance there are few details of her last 48 hours in the book which is probably why most people picked up the book to start with. I think this comes about because Kamen approaches this work as a journey of friendship. I don’t think that was the best approach. It is almost as though Kamen was afraid that if she probed too deeply, she’d violate that friendship.
Another missed opportunity is on writing about a major incident with Chang in the last year of her life. While researching a book on Bataan survivors (which promised to be every bit as damning as the Nanking book) she was actually involuntarily committed to a mental ward. Kamen never digs into this incident. We know it happened. We sort of know where it happened but not really why or what lead to her release shortly after etc. Maybe it was too painful for Kamen to deal with as a writer. Whatever the reason, I was sorely disappointed in the total skimming over that incident.
Kamen does detail some mental issues Chang suffered and eventually leads herself to believe that the suicide was just that – a suicide. From what Kamen does put in the book, one concludes she is probably right. But I would’ve liked to seen a more detailed accounting before reaching that conclusion.
What Kamen does deliver is a portrait of the personal Chang. Her work habits, her friendships, the influence of being Asian in America, what she meant to so many because of her work. So this is a side of Chang the world never got to see that Kamen does offer us a glimpse of.
As you might gather, I consider this book a mixed bag. On one hand we do learn things about Chang as a person we never knew. On the other hand, whole sections of her life and events she went through remain untouched. This book is an easy read and if you are interested in Chang then I would recommend it, giving it a weak 4 stars out of 5. However, if you haven’t read any of Chang’s three masterpieces – especially, The Rape of Nanking – by all means read that first.