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Read advance reader review of Daughters of Shandong by Eve J. Chung

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Daughters of Shandong

by Eve J. Chung

Daughters of Shandong by Eve J. Chung X
Daughters of Shandong by Eve J. Chung
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  • Published:
    May 2024, 400 pages

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  • Darlene B. (New Castle, PA)
    Self-Discovery on the Road to Taiwan
    Although this beautiful novel,'Daughters of Shandong' by author Eve J. Chung, won't be published until May of 2024, I have to include it on the list of the best books I have read in 2023. This harrowing but incredibly moving story plays out against the backdrop of the Chinese Revolution in 1948. Political and cultural struggles were occurring between the supporters of Chiang Kai Shek and the Nationalist Party and Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party. Caught up in the turmoil and bloody unrest is the Ang family... wealthy landowners who live in the province of Shandong.

    The narrator of this novel is 13-year-old Hai. She is delightful... loyal, intelligent and fiercely protective of her mother and sisters and she will endear herself to readers from the first page. Hai is the eldest daughter of the Ang family and the reader immediately becomes aware that female children are not valued in this society. In fact, the births of female children are considered bad luck and a burden on the family. In the Ang family, by the time Hai's mother gives birth to her third daughter, Hai's father does not even give her the dignity of a name. She is simply called 'Three'. Despite this treatment (or perhaps because of it), Hai, her mother and her sisters must develop a sense of self-determination, self-worth and resourcefulness to survive all they will have to endure once the Communists arrive in Shandong and they are driven from their home.

    This novel was one which I could not stop thinking about. When I wasn't reading it, I couldn't wait to return to the story. There were some difficult scenes throughout the story but reading about Hai and their treacherous journey from Shandong to Taiwan was ultimately gratifying and I rooted for these women through every step of their journey. I cannot recommend this novel enough!!
  • Kathleen L. (Fairfield, PA)
    Powerful, inspiring, riveting story
    This book is a work of fiction, but it's based on the real life of the author's grandmother. A mother and three daughters are left behind when the more powerful members of their Nationalist family flee to escape communists during the revolution. The story is told from the perspective of the oldest daughter, Li Hai, and the author does an astonishing job of capturing the thoughts of an adolescent girl dealing with both inconceivable trauma and everyday concerns. The author portrayed the relationship between Li Hai and her slightly younger sister with tenderness and frankness, showing both the squabbles and closeness of sisters. The book is a page-turner, with a gripping plot describing the mother and daughters' flight and their treatment as females. At the same time, the story provides much food for thought and offers inspiration for the struggle for gender equality. The book is well-written and not a word is wasted. One of the best books I've read this year.
  • Mitzi K. (Cumming, GA)
    A Legacy Inspired by Change
    DAUGHTERS OF SHANDONG by Eve J Chung is a captivating debut novel that delves into the author's family history, offering a poignant and enlightening perspective on the impact of the Communist revolution in China. The narrative follows a mother and her daughters as they escape to Taiwan, unraveling a tapestry of values and traditions that significantly influence the lives of women. Chung skillfully explores the trauma experienced by refugees, shedding light on the pervasive sexism ingrained in the culture of the time.

    One of the novel's strengths lies in its portrayal of how increased access to education becomes a powerful tool for overcoming societal obstacles and breaking harmful cycles. The story is well-paced and well-written, immersing readers in the characters' struggles and triumphs. DAUGHTERS OF SHANDONG not only provides a window into a tumultuous period of history but also serves as an enlightened reflection on the resilience of women and their ability to reshape their destinies against the backdrop of cultural challenges. Chung's narrative skillfully weaves together personal and historical threads, making this novel a compelling and insightful read.
  • Jodi S. (Goldens Bridge, NY)
    Excellent!
    This is the story of Hai, the oldest child of a wealthy family from Shandong, China. In the 1940s, China was a patriarchal society, and the book begins with Hai's third younger sister being born. Her father's family was not happy. When word came that the Communists were arriving in Shandong, Hai's grandparents, father, aunt, and cousins left Shandong for safety. Hai, her mother, and sisters stayed behind to "protect" the family property. The story weaves in the injustices experienced by women in that society; the struggles Hai, her mother, and sisters went through while trying to reunite with the rest of their family; and the pains of life during wartime.

    The book is well written and details a piece of history that I personally never knew much about. The story is that of the author's grandmother, but not written until her grandmother had passed away, so the book is fiction and the stories are not first-hand accounts. Eve J. Chung did a wonderful job honoring her grandmother with this amazing story of her life.
  • Lee L. (Los Angeles, CA)
    Daughters of Shandong review
    This incredible debut by Taiwanese-American lawyer Eve J. Chung doesn't come out until May 2024, but I was able to get an advance copy and boy am I glad I did. Inspired by her family's history, Chung weaves the fictional story of Li-Hai, the eldest of four daughters from the Ang family, wealthy landowners in the small rural town of Zhucheng in Shandong, China. The year is 1948 and even though World War II has officially ended, China is caught up in its own civil war between the current ruling party, the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists led by Mao Zedong. In a country still steeped in the Confucian ideal of "zhong nan qing nu" ("value men, belittle women"), Hai's mother Chiang-Yue is treated worse than a servant in the Ang household due to her inability to produce a male heir (to say that Yue is "mistreated" is an understatement — in addition to suffering constant physical and verbal abuse at the hands of her mother-in-law, her husband also neglects her and never speaks up for her). In the eyes of the Ang elders, Hai and her sisters, being daughters, are considered "disappointments" and "useless mouths to feed" (their grandmother Nai Nai has no qualms about telling them to their faces that they are better off dead so the family doesn't have to waste money on them anymore) — which is why, when the Communist army invades the town and the family is forced to flee, they decide to leave mother and daughters behind. Abandoned and left to fend for themselves, Yue and her daughters become destitute and penniless after the Communists seize their home and kick them out. Worse yet, in the absence of any Ang family males, Hai, as the eldest daughter at 13 years old, is chosen to answer for her father's and grandfather's "crimes" and is subsequently tortured to near death. With the help of former workers whom Yue had always treated kindly, mother and daughters escape to the city of Qingdao, where they hoped to reunited with the rest of the family. They survive the arduous journey to Qingdao, only to find out that the family actually relocated to Taiwan (where Chiang Kai-shek re-established the Nationalist base after fleeing China). Abandoned once again, the Ang women figure out a way to overcome the many obstacles they face, including enduring a thousand mile journey to Hong Kong and eventually finding their family in Taiwan.

    The story is narrated in the first person from Hai's perspective, which was the perfect narrative structure in this case because it made the experience more immersive and personal. In her Author's Note (which is not to be missed), Chung explains the inspiration for the story, which was originally going to be a biography of sorts about her maternal grandmother, whom she had stayed with in Taiwan as a child. But after her grandmother died, she realized there were too many gaps in her grandmother's life that she knew nothing about and regrettably had never asked, so she pivoted to turning the family history she was planning to write into a fictional story using the notes and interviews that she and her mother had already gathered. Basing the character of Hai on her maternal grandmother, Chung was able to fill in the gaps of her own family history, but more than that, for us readers, she delivered a beautifully-written story about a family of women who survive devastating heartbreak and hardship to resiliently rise above the entrenched cultural norms that bind them to inferiority within their society.

    As a Chinese daughter myself, I resonated deeply with Hai and many of the struggles she went through in trying to reconcile her identity with her culture. While I didn't share all of the experiences she went through, I did grow up under the same Chinese culture, so I was familiar with many of the antiquated traditions as well as the historical context in the story. Even with this familiarity, I have to admit that many of the scenes involving Hai's POS (pardon my French) father and grandmother and their horrible treatment of the mothers and daughters in the family were hard to read. With that said though, this is actually where Chung's story stands out from many of the other historical novels that revolve around Chinese culture and tradition — I appreciated the way that she succinctly and clearly lays out the facts of how women were treated during that time without mincing words. More than any other novel I've read in recent years (specifically ones written in contemporary times), this one does a great job exploring the internal battle that many of the women who grow up in these restrictive cultures face — despite understanding the injustices they suffer, they've internalized what they've been taught to the extent that it not only becomes a "normal" part of who they are, they also oftentimes end up perpetuating these same injustices (whether intentionally or unintentionally) onto future generations. To this point, there were many thought-provoking quotes throughout the book (which I of course marked up), but the following excerpt stood out to me the most. In this scene, Hai (as an adult now) gets into an argument with her mother, who finally, after many years, gives birth to a son, Ming, to carry on the Ang family name (though ironically, this doesn't alleviate the poor treatment that the mother continues to endure because the mother-in-law is already used to abusing her); Hai sees her mother giving her baby brother Ming a bottle of milk while she only gives her other daughter Hua (who was born right before Ming) a bottle of rice water — Hai is livid that her mother would continue to perpetuate the "preferential treatment of boys over girls" tradition after everything they suffered the past couple years precisely because they weren't sons: "…Mom began to weep. "Hai, Ming is the only one who will support us when we are old. The only one who can care for us in the afterlife. I love Hua and all my other daughters, but I have a duty, as a wife, to make sure Ming grows up well. When you have your own son, you will understand." She cried because she thought I was judging her unfairly, without realizing that her words had cut me deep. Mom hadn't said it explicitly, but I heard it loud and clear: All of us girls were worth less than Ming. She loved us less than Ming. Yet Mom was confused by my anger, and oblivious to my pain. To her, the ancient traditions centering the son were our pillar, entwined in our religion, inseparable from our existence on this earth. Telling her I was hurt would be like saying I was offended by the typhoon that tore through Mount Davis. In her mind, these injustices were part of being a woman, and bearing them was simply our fate. Men made the rules in our society, but women often enforced them. Was there something about having a son that transformed us? Was that why Nai Nai was so wretched? Was that going to be me as a mother? I didn't want it to be. After what I had been through, how could I fall into that same pattern?" Arriving at this understanding becomes tremendously important for the characters in the story, which I won't get into here (you will need to read this one to find out more).

    Needless to say, this is a book I highly recommend, but with the understanding that it definitely won't be an easy read. As with most stories about the travesties of war, this one has brutal scenes as it follows the harrowing journey of the Ang women through several generations, but the payoff at the end is well worth the read. This story (and its characters) is not one that I will forget anytime soon!

    Received ARC from Berkley / Penguin Random House via BookBrowse First Impressions program.
  • Marion M. (Mishawaka, IN)
    Revolution is not a Dinner Party (Mao)
    Two thematic strands run through this historical fiction novel partially based on the memories of the author's grandmother. The first theme is the communist revolution led by Mao following World War II which resulted in the defeat of Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist Army and the army's "exile" to Taiwan. Hai (aka the author's grandmother), Hai's mother and two sisters are left behind (abandoned) while the landowning males and elders in the Ang family flee first to Qingdao, then to Taiwan. Shortly after the People's Liberation Army seize the Ang home, the Ang females flee with only the items they can carry. The journey is not "a dinner party." Hai is tortured by the communist cadres, the family hides in a chicken coop and walk on bruised feet pushing their belongings in a dilapidated wheelbarrow until they reach Qingdao where they stay with a family member because the Ang males and elders have fled again. For almost two years the mother and daughters live hand to mouth by selling buns and calligraphy letters, folding match boxes and eating gruel provided at the refugee camps. By the time they reach Hong Kong via forged travel permits, Hong Kong is teeming with refugees. With the assistance of Uncle Ji, who has connections in the nationalist military, the girls receive permits to go to Taiwan. It's in Taiwan that the second theme of the novel is very evident, almost to the point of being preachy. That theme is connected to Confucianism and the role of women in that society–girls and women are secondary in the old Chinese society. Grandmother Ang is especially stuck in the past. While she was arrogant and evil when the family lived well in Shandong, she has become even nastier in Taiwan. Hai's mother births another daughter, then finally a son who receives all the privileges of a male in old Chinese society. There is a good deal of family angst between sisters, between daughters and parents, between younger generation and elders. Hai triumphs, passes arduous entry exams, becomes a teacher, marries, has a daughter who excels academically and studies in the U.S. Like many Chineses students, Hai's child is sent back to China to be reared by grandma. While purporting to be a historical fiction novel, the narrative reads like a memoir. The author definitely had a message she wanted to tell about the role or non-role of women in China.
  • Laurie S., Minneapolis, MN
    Daughters of Shandong
    One of the greatest joys of reading historical fiction is being transported to a dangerous and unfamiliar place in order to learn the lessons of history. Taken from author Eve J. Chung's own family history, Daughters of Shandong provided me a horrifying glimpse into China and Taiwan of the mid-twentieth century and educated me on its policies, geography, and its treatment of women and children within the family structure.

    The Ang family and its women and children experience the brutality of the advancing Communist Army enforcing Mao Ze-Dong's massive land reform policies that redistributed land from wealthy landowners. Hai, the eldest child and daughter of the Ang family, was left behind along with her mother and sisters to face the violent cadre of soldiers implementing the Communist ideologies. Escaping from their small village of Zhucheng in Shandong in order to reunite with family, they undergo a brutal journey that takes them all across China to Hong Kong and eventually Taiwan.

    I found the details of their journey fascinating. In many instances, I used maps to explore China and Taiwan in order to further understand the geographical context.

    Overall, a magnificent read. I highly recommend this novel in order to further understand Chinese policies, geography, and most importantly female agency in Chinese culture.

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