Summary and book reviews of River Town by Peter Hessler

River Town

by Peter Hessler

River Town
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2001, 416 pages
    Paperback:
    Dec 2001, 416 pages

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Book Summary

An unforgettable portrait of a city that, much like China itself, is seeking to understand both what it was and what it someday will be. "Tender, intelligent, and insightful, [this] is the work of a writer of rare talent; it deserves to become a classic."

In the heart of China's Sichuan province lies the small city of Fuling. Surrounded by the terraced hills of the Yangtze River valley, Fuling has long been a place of continuity, far from the bustling political centers of Beijing and Shanghai. But now Fuling is heading down a new path, and gradually, along with scores of other towns in this vast and ever-evolving country, it is becoming a place of change and vitality, tension and reform, disruption and growth. As the people of Fuling hold on to the China they know, they are also opening up and struggling to adapt to a world in which their fate is uncertain.

Fuling's position at the crossroads came into remarkably sharp focus when Peter Hessler arrived as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1996, marking the first time in more than half a century that the city had an American resident. He found himself teaching English and American literature at the local college, discovering how Shakespeare and other classics look when seen through the eyes of students who have been raised in the Sichuan countryside and educated in Communist Party doctrine. His students, though, are the ones who taught him about the ways of Fuling -- and about the complex process of understanding that takes place when one is immersed in a radically different society.

As he learns the language and comes to know the people, Hessler begins to see that it is indeed a unique moment for Fuling. In its past is Communist China's troubled history -- the struggles of land reform, the decades of misguided economic policies, and the unthinkable damage of the Cultural Revolution -- and in the future is the Three Gorges Dam, which upon completion will partly flood the city and force the resettlement of more than a million people. Making his way in the city and traveling by boat and train throughout Sichuan province and beyond, Hessler offers vivid descriptions of the people he meets, from priests to prostitutes and peasants to professors, and gives voice to their views. This is both an intimate personal story of his life in Fuling and a colorful, beautifully written account of the surrounding landscape and its history. Imaginative, poignant, funny, and utterly compelling, River Town is an unforgettable portrait of a city that, much like China itself, is seeking to understand both what it was and what it someday will be.

Chapter One
Downstream


I came to Fuling on the slow boat downstream from Chongqing. It was a warm, clear night at the end of August in 1996 - stars flickering above the Yangtze River, their light too faint to reflect off the black water. A car from the college drove us along the narrow streets that twisted up from the docks. The city rushed past, dim and strange under the stars.

There were two of us. We had been sent to work as teachers, and both of us were young: I was twenty-seven and Adam Meier was twenty-two. We had heard almost nothing about Fuling. I knew that part of the city would be flooded by the new Three Gorges Dam, and I knew that for many years Fuling had been closed to outsiders. Other than that I had been told very little.

No Americans had lived there for half a century. Later, I would meet older people in town who remembered some American residents in the 1940s, before the 1949 Communist Liberation, but such memories were always vague. When we arrived, there...

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Reviews

Media Reviews

The New York Times Book Review

An important work of reportage.... A book that is like the river itself, both lovely and rebellious, and strong beneath the stillness of its surface.

Vanity Fair

Never is Hessler's complex China, or his book, anything less than magnificent...An intimate, humorous, true-to-life portrait of modern China.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. A vivid and touching tribute to a place and its people.

Booklist

Starred Review. Moving, mesmerizing.... Transcends the boundaries of the travel genre and will appeal to anyone wanting to learn more about the heart and soul of the Chinese people.

Author Blurb Gay Talese
I think River Town is one of the most important books that will be published this coming year.... Amazing.

Author Blurb Abraham Verghese, author of The Tennis Partner and My Own Country
Hessler writes beautifully. River Town is memoir, travelogue, and astute anthropological writing woven into a book that is difficult to put down.

Author Blurb Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman
Tender, intelligent, and insightful, [this] is the work of a writer of rare talent; it deserves to become a classic.

Author Blurb Ha Jin, author of Waiting
Suffused with candor, compassion, insights, and intimate knowledge, River Town is a wonderful read.

Author Blurb Tim Cahill, author of Pass the Butterworms and Road Fever
River Town is at once profoundly insightful, sharply critical, deeply admiring, thoroughly unsentimental, precisely written, and often very, very funny.

Reader Reviews

Rockne Porter

I am an American business man who has been involved in China projects for fourteen years. Recently I read River Town and I recommend for any one planning to do business in China.

Few foreigners have the opportunity to witness life in Fueling and the ...   Read More

Simon Feng

I am a Chinese living in American and I really enjoy this book. I grew up in city of Guangdong province and educated in Xian, a city in the northwest of China. For me, the people in this book seams very familiar most of the time to me and sometime ...   Read More

Anonymous

I am a Chinese living in the US. The book's vivid description of a small Sichuan city brings back a lot of memories about my hometown in Hunan, another southern province which is also famous for its spicy, spicy food and suffers a lot from the floods...   Read More

Renee Chen

Beautifully written and extremely funny. I couldn't put it down once I started reading. I have rarely seen any writer depict Chinese characters so precisely, including native Chinese writers.

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