Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A Hundred Flowers by Gail Tsukiyama


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The book's description from the publisher's website:

China, 1957. Chairman Mao has declared a new openness in society: “Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend.” Many intellectuals fear it is only a trick, and Kai Y ing’s husband, Sheng, a teacher, has promised not to jeopardize their safety or that of their young son, T ao. But one July morning, just before his sixth birthday, Tao watches helplessly as Sheng is dragged away for writing a letter criticizing the Communist Party and sent to a labor camp for “reeducation.”

A year later, still missing his father desperately, Tao climbs to the top of the hundred-year-old kapok tree in front of their home, wanting to see the mountain peaks in the distance. But Tao slips and tumbles thirty feet to the courtyard below, badly breaking his leg.

As Kai Ying struggles to hold her small family together in the face of this shattering reminder of her husband’s absence, other members of the household must face their own guilty secrets and strive to find peace in a world where the old sense of order is falling. Once again, Tsukiyama brings us a powerfully moving story of ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances with grace and courage.
Quietly unassuming. I have always wondered how to best express what Tsukiyama's novels are like and with A Hundred Flowers I have  finally found the right words: quietly unassuming, until at the very end the true beauty of it stunned me.

What can I write about A Hundred Flowers that I haven't already praised when writing about The Street of a Thousand Blossoms and The Samurai's Garden? I've loved them both and although I approached Ms. Tsukiyama's newest 'jewel' with trepidation (I was anxious about how it would measure up to her other 'jewels'), I love A Hundred Flowers. I love the writing, I love the tone, and especially, I love the message it carries: the hope that keeps us humans going despite the almost equal despair and unfairness of life. 

I could give you a rant about the deceit and cruelty of communism (living through the last decade of it myself), a socialist movement that may sound good in theory, but it never, ever is good in practice. But I won't. A Hundred Flowers will hopefully compel you to research further and learn about Mao's
Hundred Flowers Campaign and Great Leap Forward. Trust me, it's worth it. This greatly talented writer will show you the truth in words such as these:

Kai Ying tried to imagine what it must have been like to have servants doing all the things that now filled her days. It was the bourgeoisie lifestyle Mao and the Communist Party had despised and fought against, declaring victory for the people. And yet, why was there never enough rice or oil or coal for the people?

Gail Tsukiyama will first and foremost, however, help you understand what the truest hardship is, how decisions of one person (in this case, Chairman Mao Zedong's) have the power to shake the foundations of whole families, the power to cause suffering of wives, husbands and children, who quite possibly suffered the most just like little Tao. He couldn't fully comprehend what was happening, why people he loved disappeared from his life or caused him heartbreak. And in the end he had to grow up faster than any child ever should. But those decisions will never break those people. As long as there is hope, they'll persevere. And therein lies the true beauty of A Hundred Flowers.


FTC: I received an e-galley of A Hundred Flowers from the publisher, St. Martin's Press, for review.