Review of Teak Lord
by Gregory Williams
Posted at reedsy.com/discovery and goodreads.com
Set in the latter part of the 19th century in what is now northern Thailand, this period story of historical fiction is a masterful account of a time and place when smaller kingdoms, including Lanna and Siam (later to become Thailand) negotiated over the trades of teak and opium, along with the British Empire. Before reading this book, I had very little knowledge of this, other than being aware of the Chinese/British opium wars around this same period.
The author, who has himself lived in Chiang Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand, for 30 years. His incredibly meticulous research captures not only the area, but also the period, which is no easy task. As the reader, we gain awareness of this time and place through the main character, Dr. Marion Cheek, a medical missionary, who is brought there with the intent of promoting conversions to Christianity, but who loses interest and instead finds himself in the middle of the teak wood trade. Of note, Dr. Cheek is based on a real historical character.
In addition to Dr. Cheek, the author brings in significant number of historically accurate characters, such as Chao Inthanon and King Chulalongkorn of Siam. In the course of the story, you’re enveloped into a clearly chronologically and historically authentic tale in the middle of a time chronicled by Rudyard Kipling, and a place chronicled by Rodgers and Hammerstein in The King and I.
Several mighty and intelligent elephants also play a whimsical part of the storyline. For example, “It looks like someone has finished off their rice whisky, but no one will admit the blame,” responded Cheek. Just then, a loud rustling preceded the arrival of Look Bah in the clearing. The young elephant staggered from side to side, then after slumping in an ungainly manner on to one knee, she keeled over on to her side and promptly fell asleep. The men looked wide-eyed at each other, then burst out laughing together, realising that the culprit had just revealed herself."
In the process, we also learn much about the culture of Chiang Mai, Lanna and Siam, and about the teak and opium trades at that time. The personality and friendship of Cheek and Chao Inthanon feels playful and consistent with the historical record. One example is a cute scene when Cheek finishes building a bridge but the cautious Chao is afraid to cross it after his ceremonial cutting of the ribbon. Only after Cheek goes across it with three elephants does the ruler go across himself.
Overall, a wonderful read, which I highly recommend.