The book is written by Da Chen, who was born during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. His family was part of the landlord class, a class that was despised under the new communist regime. His father and grandfather were forced to perform strenuous physical labor, were often beaten, and nearly always ridiculed. Here is an excerpt regarding the rules that were to govern Grandpa’s conduct:
“Since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, the commune cadre in charge of landlord reform had set the following rules: Grandpa could not visit his friends, he could not leave town without advance permission, and he was to write a detailed diary of his life every day. This was to be turned in every week. He wasn’t welcome in any public places, could not engage in any political discussions, and should look away if someone spit in his face. If they missed, he was to wipe the spit off the ground. There were more rules, but Grandpa forgot some when he came home to tell us about them.”
Chen befriends a group of hoodlums in his early teenage years, and he almost completely gives up on school, which was not that much of a surprise since intellectualism was a big “no no” during this time. This part of Chen’s life has elements of Oliver Twist, Huck Finn, and the countless other young, ragamuffin protagonists of English literature, the chief difference being that these “stories” are the real-life experiences of Chen.
Chen describes his early life and his hometown of Yellow Stone with simple prose. He manages to be clear and straight-forward while at the same time interesting and humorous. The book ends with Chen in his late teens, but it really feels like the story is just beginning, that there is still so much more. I wanted to know what transpired that enabled this young man in this small Chinese town to have his memoirs published by Random House. That is obviously not the story that Chen wanted to tell. But I think it too would have been an interesting one.