Anna and the King of Siam

Anna and the King of Siam

by Margaret Landon, Margaret Ayer (Illustrator)
Publisher: HarperCollins
Trade Paperback, 395 pages
Price: $14.95

Historical Setting: Victorian Era, 19th Century, Siam/Thailand

Anna Lenowens, a proper Englishwoman, was an unlikely candidate to change the course of Siamese (Thai) history. A young widow and mother, her services were engaged in the 1860's by King Mongkut of Siam to help him communicate with foreign governments and be the tutor to his children and favored concubines. Stepping off the steamer from London, Anna found herself in an exotic land she could have only dreamed of: a lush landscape of mystic faiths and curious people, and a king's palace bustling with royal pageantry, ancient custom, and harems. One of her pupils, the young prince Chulalongkorn, was particularly influenced by Leonowens and her Western ideals. He learned about Abraham Lincoln and the tenets of democracy from her, and years later he would become Siam's most progressive king. He guided the country's transformation from a feudal state to a modern society, abolishing slavery and making many other radical reforms.

Weaving meticulously researched facts with beautifully imagined scenes, Margaret Landon recreates an unforgettable portrait of life in a forgotten exotic land. Written more than fifty years ago, and translated into dozens of languages, Anna and the King of Siam (the inspiration for the musical play and film The King and I) continues to delight and enchant readers around the world.

Review by Amanda Evans

Idealist, former perfectionist, and now mother of five, Amanda Evans is also former co-owner of Exodus. Amanda's reviews focus on those items that matter to wives and mothers (which covers more than you might think!). Read more of them here.

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Summary: A young Englishwoman changes the course of Siamese history by teaching the king's children and concubines.

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  A Story of Siam's Transition From A Medieval Count
Amanda Evans of Oregon City, 10/17/2008
I have never been very interested in Eastern cultures but this book covers such a unique period in Siam's history that it managed to captivate me. When Anna Leonowens lived in Siam, that country was on the brink of change. The current king had one foot solidly in Siam's medieval past and yet he was gingerly stepping into her modern future. On the one hand he was still immersed in the ancient traditions of slavery, torture, prostration, and even human sacrifice. But he was also opening Siam's doors to Western science and thought. During his reign he prepared the minds of the Siamese people for the rule of his son, a man who would abolish prostration as his first act as king and eventually end slavery. One of the king's more important acts was to allow Anna to come to Siam to teach his royal children (all sixty odd of them!) the English language and Western thought. The son who became the next king attributed his desire to reign over a free country to Anna's early teaching.

Anna's experience in Siam was much more trying and heartrending than the Rogers and Hammerstein musical portrays (though it is because of the popularity of that movie that this book remains in print). There was no "Shall We Dance (da dum dum dum)" or "Getting to Know You." Most of her time was spent in the king's harem city-within-a-city—full of women and children locked away from the rest of the world waiting on the will of the domineering king. Her heart bled to be surrounded by slavery and she exerted all her influence to aid the helpless and oppressed around her. Even years after her departure, she was known throughout the city of Bangkok as the White Angel.

The king of Siam was incredibly temperamental and used to having ultimate power. He would send for Anna at all hours of the night to work as his secretary and answer silly philosophical questions on top of her full job as a teacher. Starting with a brief history of her life before Siam (now Thailand), most of this book chronicles the influential few years Anna spent in that country. As a biography, its not very plot driven and at times it gets a little slow paced. By the end, though, the reader is left with a deep respect for the plucky little Welsh woman who ventured alone into the exotic and oppressed city of Bangkok and stood up to the all-powerful king of Siam.