Wednesday, September 16, 2009

To Quote Chairman Mao...

Book review time! This one doesn't count for my China Challenge because I actually read it in August. But if you wanted to, you could read it for your China Challenge!

Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party Ying Chang Compestine

This is an autobiographical novel of Chang's childhood during the Cultural Revolution. Starting in 1972, it tells of 8-year-old Ling, who watches in horror over four years as neighbors disappear, food becomes scarce, and suspicion rules the land. Throughout it all, she clings to a hidden picture of the Golden Gate Bridge and her surgeon father's stories of American Freedom.

While the story is a gripping account of a turbulent time aimed at middle grade readers (not really YA, despite the marketing) I have a small, but major, historical bone to pick. One which utterly ruins an otherwise wonderful novel.

If Ling was untouched by the Cultural Revolution until 1972, which is what happens in the book, she was truly blessed. In 1967, Wuhan (where the story takes place) erupted into full scale civil war with Red Guard fighting Red Guard. (While I'm sure such fighting continued in Wuhan sporadically throughout the Cultural Revolution, it seems strange to miss the 1967 fighting all together and instead place such events in 1976). The fact that her family's lifestyle--pearl necklaces, Voice of America broadcasts, English lessons, foreign novels, even celebrating Christmas Eve, survived the turmoil of the late 1960s (when Cultural Revolution furor was at its highest) until the early 1970s is, frankly, unbelievable. So is the fact that neighbors don't disappear and no one gets sent to the country side until 1974, which is when things were starting to wind down. Most of the action that is described in the book would have made much more sense in 1966-1968 ish. The fact that Ling somehow missed the first 8 years of the Cultural Revolution and was only aware of the last 4 is a bit like having a Holocaust novel set in Warsaw and nothing bad starts happening until 1941. The only thing that rings true for the the mid-1970s period is the scarcity of food and near starvation.

I was reading this and then flipped back to check the year again and I knew it was wrong. So, I put it down and looked some stuff up in Jonathan Spence's The Search for Modern China. I even ran to the bookstore to finally purchase a copy of Mao's Last Revolution by Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals. As I was reading an ARC (provided by the publisher at ALA a few years ago in my role as librarian, not as blogger) I double checked the dates against the published copy and still... yeah.

Also, they were celebrating Christmas? The only reason you would celebrate Christmas in the middle of the Cultural Revolution is if you were deeply Christian, and then you'd think that would come up in a first-person narrative about it, but it didn't, so it was just... odd.

I would have really, really enjoyed this book if it started in 1967 or 1968. It would have been a wonderful book if it didn't have these timeline issues. I would be throwing this book at people, demanding that the read it, if the years at the beginning of each section were different. Sadly, they aren't, and so I have serious reservations about it and will instead point you to Red Scarf Girl by Ji-li Jiang.


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