Sunday, September 11, 2011
Revolution is Not a Dinner Party
I have been looking for books for our literature curriculum written by and based on Asian cultures. Unfortunately, it isn't terribly easy to find something that both fits those categories and is a worthwhile book to read in class with middle school students. Oh, there are books out there, but so many of them are written by American or European authors about Asian cultures. I was happy to find Revolution is not a Dinner Party by Ying Chang Compestine, a story about a young girl growing up in China at the end of Mao Ze-dong's Cultural Revolution.
Ling is nine years old and her biggest dream is to see the United States. Her father teaches her English in secret, shows her pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge, and they sing English songs and read English books. But something is happening in China that threatens her family's way of life. Both her parents are doctors- her father of Western medicine and her mother of traditional Chinese medicine. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, if you weren't working class, you were considered extravagant and wasteful, and Ling's parents fell into that category.
When a Maoist officer moves into their apartment building, everyone in the building is careful because he has the power to make them all disappear if they are thought to be an anti-revolutionist against Mao. When Ling's neighbor, another doctor, disappears, Ling begins to slowly understand the severity of the situation. Then the neighbor's wife is taken and their son moves in with Ling's family. When he is found trying to escape to Hong Kong, he turns on Ling's family and turns them in to save himself. Ling's father is arrested and Ling and her mother must survive on their own with ration dollars becoming fewer and fewer and food in the black market more and more unreliable. Trying to protect her mother, Ling takes over getting food for the family and tries to stay out of trouble. Unfortunately, she has too much of her father in her and can't bear to swallow her pride when confronted by bullies at school and their Maoist parents. Will Ling's fate be any better than the millions of others who were murdered or disappeared during the Cultural Revolution?
This is a fast, small book that really blew me away. It reminded me a lot of Marjane Satrapi's graphic memoir Persepolis in that the main character is a young girl dealing with very mature, life threatening situations she doesn't completely understand. I feel like this perspective is important for students because they can see how the events that unfold are wrong through an innocent child's eyes. It is also interesting to see students critically analyze the naivete of the main character, especially since they are children themselves! It is important for children to relate to a culture they don't know much about, so having a common thread helps make the book more meaningful to them.
I have read some reviews on this book that criticize it for being "historical fiction" rather than a memoir, but I am not sure what is wrong with this. The author grew up in China during the Revolution and based the characters and events off her own experiences. Despite being fiction, the story is steeped in the author's life, making this just as powerful a story even if it isn't a memoir. I still think it is a valuable tool for exposing students to a culture they might not have been exposed to.
This is a perfect book for middle reader students, although the subject matter is serious and it could be used for an older, low-skilled student who likes historical fiction. I imagine this book being appropriate for grades 5-8 for the most part. At the end there is an explanation from the author of how the events in the book relate to her own life. There is also a brief explanation of the historical background, which might be better if read with students first, before the story. This would be a valuable book for any student to read!