Sunday, August 10, 2014

A father's absence, a child's fall

A Hundred Flowers, Gail Tsukiyama

This book is up for discussion at one of my book groups tomorrow night.  As I have admitted before, I am a lousy book group member, because I can't read on a schedule.  I think it's the first time this year that I have actually A) finished the book  B) before the actual discussion.  I was happy to see A Hundred Flowers chosen, in fact, because I have had my eye on Gail Tsukiyama's books since the discussion earlier this year about reading diversely (centered around BookCon 2014).  Speaking of which, I've just signed up for the #Diversiverse Reading Week (A More Diverse Universe 2014), organized by Aarti of Book Lust.

A Hundred Flowers is set in Mao Tse-Tung's China, on the eve of the Great Leap Forward.  In the spring of 1956, Mao announced the "Hundred Flowers Campaign," asking intellectuals and artists to suggest ways to improve China.  The book's title comes from one of Mao's statements: "Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend."  Despite the official encouragement, after a decade of persecution under the Communists many were afraid to speak out, to draw attention to themselves.  It was almost a year before people felt safe enough to write or speak publicly.  In the end, their initial fears were justified.  As criticisms of the Communist Party and its leaders began to appear, the government started arresting those who had spoken out, charging them with subversion and sentencing them to long terms of "re-education" at labor camps.

I know very little of this period in China's history.  Gail Tsukiyama explores it through a family, the Lees, living in Guangzhou in the south, near Hong Kong  (Ms. Tsukiyama's mother is from Hong Kong, and growing up she often visited family there).  Her story opens in July of 1958, a year after Lee Sheng, a high school history teacher, was arrested for writing a letter criticizing Mao and the Party.  His seven-year-old son Tao doesn't understand why his father was taken away and why he hasn't come home.  One day he climbs a tree in the family's courtyard, hoping that from the top he can see the White Cloud Mountain his father often told him about.  Instead, he falls, breaking his leg so badly that it may leave permanent damage.  His accident upsets the fragile balance of a family under great stress.  His mother Kai Ying has had only two letters from Sheng in the past year.  She avoids her son's questions, and her own, while supporting the family with her work as an herbalist.  Tao spends much of his time with his grandfather Wei, a retired professor of art history, who buries grief and guilt over his son's arrest in caring for his grandson.  Their family also includes a neighbor, Song, whose apartment was carved out of the family mansion in the Communists' redistribution of wealth (another family occupies the ground floor of the house).  The household grows to two more with the arrival of Suyin, a teen-ager who has been living on the streets, pregnant and alone, whose baby Kai Ying delivers one stormy night. 

The story shifts between the different characters as they cope with Tao's recovery, Sheng's continuing absence, and the strains of daily life under the Communist regime.  (In reading about this period, I learned that things were about to get much worse in China, as Mao launched the Great Leap Forward, with its forced industrialization.)  There are other strains within the family, which eventually lead Wei on an impulsive and difficult journey to find his son.  I enjoyed this book both for the family story and for its setting, a window into China in the late 1950s.  I was particularly interested in Kai Ying's work as an herbalist, treating her patients with traditional remedies to keep their qi, their life-force, in balance.  She finds a willing student in Suyin, who needs more than physical healing from childbirth.  I can't help wondering what will happen to this family in the years to come, and whether Sheng will ever return to them.

I already have a second of Gail Tsukiyama's books on the TBR stacks, The Samurai's Garden, set in Japan just before the Second World War.  I am looking forward to discovering her other books.


  1. What a heartbreaking book! My heart hurt just reading your post, yet the situation also makes me so angry. It sounds like a really good choice for book clubs. Do you think it will lead to an interesting discussion?

  2. Anbolyn, the family's love and their care for each other are kind of an antidote for what's going on around them - or like one of Kai Ying's herbal medicines. We're a chatty group, but not always about the book :) but I can't complain, when I don't always read the book!

  3. I've never belonged to a book group as I'm not very disciplined with books I'm meant to read, and I'm terribly shy, but also terrifically over-opinionated once I get going.. ;-) However, this seems like the sort of book that would really get people talking. It sounds, as Anbolyn says, heartbreaking.

  4. If you want to learn more about this period the 'Wild Swans'by Jung Chang is worth a read. She came to speak at the university last year and was a delightful woman.

  5. Does it make you want to learn more about that period in Chinese history? Often when I read these sort of family historical novels, I end up feeling annoyed that I haven't learned more about the time period -- it feels like the historical novels I read as a kid managed much better to make me remember the history bits.

  6. vicki, I am the same way - shy & introverted, but with strong - not to say dogmatic opinions. Sadly, there wasn't much discussion. This group has started meeting in restaurants, which I think inhibits discussion.

    Alex, the title of that book sounds familiar. Thanks for the recommendation - I will look for it.

    Jenny, it does remind me how little I know of China's history. And I wouldn't even know where to start reading - though I think Guy Gavriel Kay gave some suggestions in his book on T'ang Dynasty China (more historical fiction).


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!