“The Conversion of Sum Loo” Response Post • Willa Cather Short Story Project

Featured image The Conversion of Sum Loo
Image from The Willa Cather Archive [source]

“The Conversion of Sum Loo” has a surprising twist ending. I wasn’t expecting Sum Loo to take matters into her own hands. The last scene is so vivid:

Spoiler! Click to open at your own risk if you haven’t yet read the story.

“Suddenly she heard a droning singsong sound, as of a chant, and, moving cautiously, she came upon Sum Loo and stood watching her in terrified amazement. Sum Loo had the copy of the New Testament in Chinese which Sister Hannah had given her husband, open before. She sat crouching at the shrine of the goddess who bestows children and tore out the pages of the book one by one, and, carefully folding them into narrow strips, she burned them in the candles before the goddess, chanting, as she did so, one name over and over incessantly.”

The image at the top of this post is the header for “The Conversion of Sum Loo” which was published in the August 11, 1900 edition of The Library. I haven’t been able to track down a copy of this edition (yet), but hope to eventually. A reference librarian tried to help but could only find content back to 1905. They suggested I contact the publisher directly to see if they have a copy in their archives.

From Celestial to Conversion

As I mentioned in the reminder post for this month, “The Conversion of Sum Loo” is a reworking of Cather’s 1893 story, “A Son of the Celestial.” In this month’s story, the setting is again in San Francisco’s Chinatown and the main male character, Sum Chin, is a financially successful Chinese immigrant. There is also the conflicted white male character, opium, and imagery depicting Chinese religion as sinister and associated with the devil, as well as other stereotypes popular in “Yellow Peril” stories.

The white male character is Norman Girrard, the “charcoal preacher,” who always carries sketching tools to capture some of what he sees. The story is accompanied by some lovely charcoal-looking sketches in The Library presentation.

Women in the story

[Image source]

One of the main differences between the two stories is that there are women in “The Conversion of Sum Loo.” There’s the title character, Sum Loo (née Te Loo) and Sister Hannah. Interestingly, the adjective “little” is placed before both names when they are first given. There are also groups of women: in China it is concubines and in San Francisco it is the American mission women.

The parallels seem obvious. The physical bodies of both groups of women are controlled by their cultures. Concubines’ feet are bound and Sisters like Hannah “should have had children of their own to bother about” instead bothering other women’s children. I took this to imply that women like Hannah are too focused on mission work to marry and have children or she’s a Catholic nun. Later in the story, Sum Chin hears his father crying from the grave over the lack of offspring. “For of all unfilial crimes, childlessness is the darkest.”

Another significant parallel: Infanticide in China is alluded to and the Jesus People of the Mission are blamed with killing the infant Sum Wing.

There are derogatory racial stereotypes and names used in this story. It is also more of a character sketch than a full story, albeit one with more of a storyline than “A Son of the Celestial.” Overall, I thought this an intriguing and more nuanced piece. Cather is disrupting the “dead things that move” idea presented in “Celestial” by depicting Sum Chin’s pain.

What’s in a word?

In the opening paragraph, the narrator states that part of the “purport” of the story is to tell “how little Sister Hannah learn that the soul of the Oriental is a slippery thing.” Initially, I did an eye-roll over the choice of the word “purport.” It seemed a pretentious undergrad word, a writer trying to sound fancy. But then I consulted a dictionary to check my assumption and this was the first definition that came up: “appear or claim to be or do something, especially falsely; profess.” Right. I had simply not come across the word used in this way.

Well, this made me rethink the whole story! The narrator is casting doubt on this story from the first line.

With this in mind, do you think there’s a chance Sister Hannah realizes that trying to convert anyone is pointless? What do you think about the story overall? Leave a comment.

Suggested Reading:

Lee, Julia H. “The Chinaman’s Crime: Race, Memory, and the Railroad in Willa Cather’s “The Affair at Grover Station”.” Western American Literature 49, no. 2 (2014): 147-170. doi:10.1353/wal.2014.0060.

Ryder, Mary R. “”All Wheat and No Chaff”: Frank Norris’ “Blix” and Willa Cather’s Literary Vision.” American Literary Realism, 1870-1910 22, no. 1 (1989): 17-30. Accessed May 26, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27746373.


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Learn more about the Willa Cather Short Story Project here. In a nutshell, we’re reading one Cather short story a month. Jump in anytime!




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2 replies

  1. I appreciate your thoughtful analysis and research. In contrast, I write my thoughts as soon as I finish reading, with neither of your efforts. But, here are my comments:

    As in last month’s short story, Cather began with a poem, and I preferred this one in preparing me for the cultural and religious conflicts to follow, including the reference to dead gods, as well as the hint: “the soul of the Oriental is a slippery thing.”

    Sum Chin used the Christian faith in a businessman’s manner, not so different from American men who join the right Country Club and the right Church to build their business. His life seems more a matter of reacting than careful planning, duty observed but without particular reflection.

    His young, and second, wife was also more superficial about her choices, seeming to drift into her religious choices.

    Sister Hannah, however, believed and calculated and manipulated–coaxing Sum Loo, who was easily coaxed, since the depth of her decisions was shallow. As for Sum Chin, the approach was more calculated and manipulated, but his businessman’s “what can it hurt” analysis was characteristic.

    It was the death of Sum Wing that revealed the slippery soul of the three of them–Sum Chin having ignored his traditional omens and casting blame away from himself; Sum Loo, the compliant child-woman of little substance, who cast the blame on the New Testament and what it had promised; but Sister Hannah, who had been so confident of her faith and her manipulations to get Sum Wing baptized fled into the night, fearing whatever god’s anger for her acts…a slippery thing indeed.

    (I hope I got all of the names right! 🙁 Lyn

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