Li reconstructs her childhood and girlhood through a series of
fragile and powerful vignettes: Fragile because the pre-revolutionary China that
informs her values and shapes her childhood is obliterated before she is old
enough to take her place within it; powerful because Li's family's suffers
cruelties so arbitrary that they are almost surreal, and are threatened by a
savagery wholly indifferent to the familial or the personal.
The brutal ironies commence with the Great Leap Forward: Li's family and neighbors eagerly relinquish pots, pans and metal objects to Li's father's homemade brick furnace until they realize that they don't know how to make iron or steel. Then in 1959 comes the government-ordered eradication of sparrows: Li's family and neighbors enthusiastically shoot the birds or drive them off by banging pots and pans. Li's family is happy and proud when the newspaper announces that over 400,000 sparrows have been destroyed in their city. But without the sparrows to keep the insect population in check, the rice and wheat crops fail and millions of people die of starvation and suffer deprivation.
But Li's deprivations are not only physical: The cessation of education, the degradation of teachers, and the destruction of, and preservation of, books is central to Li's story. Li's father is a thoughtful and literate man, and when he is arrested, his treasured library of Chinese and western classics is thrown into sacks and carted off with him. (Later, Li's brother discovers an old man guarding a warehouse full of condemned books from which he rescues The Call of the Wild, a childhood favorite.) From the labor camp where he is imprisoned, Li's father sends his children a reading listand it is this list that inspires Li to begin what she calls a "secret reading club." She borrows forbidden books and dictionaries from friends and relatives and sets about the daunting task of mastering Russian, American and English literature, including Shakespeare. Fortified and inspired by her reading, Li boldly smuggles a copy of Huckleberry Finn to a friend by hiding it in a box labeled "FOOD." The friend covers the forbidden tome in the jacket of a book by Chairman Mao, and devours it in secret. In the wasteland of the Cultural Revolution, forbidden books are sustenance, escape, and an emotional reunion with those Li has lost.
Li's story, though rooted in China, will speak to every young person struggling to realize his or her ambitions, and to every loving family facing hardship or loss. Young readers will appreciate Li's plainspoken style, her restraint, and the clarity with which she describes the unthinkable as well as the beautiful. Adult readers will find much to admire, and will discover not only a poignant story of a vanished world, but a meditation on what parents can and cannot give their children: They cannot guarantee peace or prosperity, they cannot always be present, but as Li puts it, parents can bestow a profound "sense of direction."
This review was originally published in May 2008, and has been updated for the March 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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