Book: Ties that Bind, Ties that Break

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Ties that Bind, Ties that Break: A Novel

Author: Lensey Namioka
Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers

Third Sister in the Tao family, Ailin has watched her two older sisters go through the painful process of having their feet bound. In China in 1911, all the women of good families follow this ancient tradition. But Ailin loves to run away from her governess and play games with her male cousins. Knowing she will never run again once her feet are bound, Ailin rebels and refuses to follow this torturous tradition.

As a result, however, the family of her intended husband breaks their marriage agreement. And as she enters adolescence, Ailin finds that her family is no longer willing to support her. Chinese society leaves few options for a single woman of good family, but with a bold conviction and an indomitable spirit, Ailin is determined to forge her own destiny. Her story is a tribute to all those women whose courage created new options for the generations who came after them.


It’s 1911, and China is slowly beginning to accept modern ideas—but the changes may not happen fast enough for young Ailin. Her grandmother has decided it’s time she has her feet bound, to make her more attractive to a future husband. When Ailin sees the sad state of her sister’s feet, she is stunned. “I stared at the pitiful stumps at the end of Second Sister’s legs…her foot had been squeezed into a wedge: the big toe had been left undeformed, but the rest of the foot…had been forced down under the sole…like a piece of bread folded over.” Luckily, Ailin’s progressive father allows her to keep her feet unfettered, even though it means breaking off her prearranged marriage into a more traditional family. He also sends her to a public school to learn English. But by the time Ailin is in her teens, her father has died, leaving her less tolerant Big Uncle to be the head of the family. Big Uncle forbids Ailin’s schooling and gives her the choice of either being a nun or a peasant’s wife—the only alternatives left for an unmarried Chinese woman with “big feet.” Ailin refuses both options, and instead becomes a nanny for an American missionary couple. Due to their generosity, Ailin starts a new life in the United States.

Powerfully told in flashback, Ties that Bind, Ties that Break is a thoughtful exploration of the ways cultural pressures can bend not only our personal values but even our physical appearance. And this gripping, lyrical story’s theme may be most meaningful to those teens who feel the need to pierce and tattoo their bodies in order to fit into contemporary adolescent society. (Ages 11 to 14) —Jennifer Hubert

Barnes and Noble

The third sister in the Tao family, Ailin is not quite five years old in 1911, a time of transformation in China, when Western philosophies are creating a wave of revolutions and the empire is crumbling. More spirited than her older sisters, Ailin rebels against the torturous age-old tradition of binding girls’ feet. When the family of her intended husband breaks the marriage agreement because her feet are not bound, Ailin feels no remorse. But as she enters adolescence, her family is no longer willing to support her. She realizes for the first time just how powerless a girl of good family with no prospect of marriage is in Chinese society.

Ailin has no intention of following that society’s traditions. Not only can she read and write Chinese, but she also learns English and seeks a way to make her own living. When she is offered an opportunity that shocks her already estranged family, Ailin faces a decision that may further alienate her from her familial duty and from her country.

Lensey Namioka has written an unforgettable saga of a girl who defies the ancient traditions of her class and heritage, emerging at last as a young woman with an indomitable spirit.

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