Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze
Set in 1920's China this story follows a boy (13) and his mother into Korea. Shortly before we read this book I listened to Peony In Love by Lisa See. So I felt like I had gotten a crash course in Chinese history and customs. Pearl S. Buck wrote the brief introduction (one page front and back) and suggests that to appreciate a book about a foreign place one must have a general understanding of that place and the people in it. She then proceeds to give much detail and convey the history of the government structure in two paragraphs. For older readers this information might be interesting but not essential. For younger readers I think it's only important that they know that Asian cultures have much more respect for their elders and for earning an honest living than most Americans do. This book is enjoyable with zero knowledge but probably makes more sense if you at least know about the respect.
Another thing that is helpful to read this book is a general knowledge of Chinese vocabulary. There are forty words in the glossary which I didn't discover until we finished the book. In the first three pages of the story you see words like: (load)-coolie, Chung Kingese, queue, plaited, carrying pole, wedding chair (girl rides through streets), tea house and lots of references to geographical parts of the region. We also quickly get an insight into the culture with the exchange on page 2, excerpted here:
"Pig, have you no eyes?"
"And you, grandson of a two-headed, could you not see that trunk?"
"It is your affair, you whose ancestors for ten generations have been scavengers of the streets, to look where you place a load!"
"And it is yours, whose grandmother resembled a monkey, to move out of the way of workers!"
Hair was pulled and a stick was almost swung until a bride being carried through the street caused a distraction and the bystander, who was upset because a trunk had been set on his foot, ran off through the crowd.
Also at the back are notes. They are organized by chapter (1-5, 9 & 13) and have topic subheadings. I did not know this when we read the book and was mildly concerned about my 6y4m son not fully grasping some of the nuances. Had I known I would have fully utilized these notes. but, if you prefer not to flip back and forth the story is quite enjoyable on its own.
It did drag a bit, I would've preferred about forty pages less, but definitely recommend this as an entertaining and insightful/educational read. When I was in High school, my sister, eight years my senior, told me I should read An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreisser, so I did. I never knew why she recommended the thick novel so highly. It was pleasant but much of it just felt like plodding along through someone else's life. Young Fu could be the Asian version of that story. There is not too much drama or suspense - it's not a page turner, but it's pleasant.
The back story is summed up i two paragraphs on page 6:
...For weeks she had wept over the idea of leaving the farm land where she had spent her life. But with her husband's death, she had not known in which direction to turn for help. Her father-in-law had died years before, and there was no other member of his family on whom she had a claim. Tilling the ground offered in these troubled times a secure living to no man. ...
And then, when the future had seemed darkest, the Head of the Village told her of an opening for an apprentice with one Tang ... . A life in Chungking was not what she would have chosen, but, ..., she possessed only a few dollars ... - a feeble barrier between themselves and hunger.
Young Fu was quite enamored with the idea of life in a big city and, with the innocence of youth, shared none of what-could-happen-in-a-big-city fears of his mother. A scholarly older man named Wang is their upstairs neighbor. He interacts on a fairly frequent basis with Young Fu but I never really got the point of his character. He teaches Young Fu to read and write but he could've learned from somewhere else. I think the story would not change much without this character.
When Young Fu begins his apprenticeship in Chapter 2 he is 13 years and 7 moons old. A little bit older than one normally begins an apprenticeship. It is normally a five year term but war has shortened it to three years Normally the apprentices eat and sleep at Tang's too but since Fu Be Be, Young Fu's mom, is alone he will sleep at home every night. This might be harder though since he is still required to begin as early and stay as late as the others. Not to mention all the temptation he passes in the streets every night on his way home. As the apprenticeship is being finalized there is commentary on how education is valued and, soon after, how thrifty Fu Be Be can be.
Like any child-gone-to-boarding-school story, Young Fu has the same tried and true experiences. He has to learn to fit in, he has to learn restraint with the new freedoms he has - freedom of time, money and responsibility. He makes mistakes and learns how to turn them around.
Of course, since he is the title character, he grows into Tang's right hand man, as you'd expect but not before paying his dues and learning all pieces of the trade.
On page 45 there is one of a few gruesome or intense scenes scattered throughout the book when young Fu encounters some soldiers in the street abusing their power by harassing, and ultimately shooting, a coolie. Also scattered throughout are references to superstition and of paying homage to gods, goddesses and shrines, mostly by Fu Be Be. Because of all the government turmoil the guys at Tang's often discuss politics. Tang has wise words of advice on every subject - much like Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid. He also has great insight and often lets one's own inner turmoil serve as just punishment.
On page 64 & 66 there is a scene with some beggars outside the city gate. For someone who's only seen American pan-handlers it may seem exaggerated but anyone with foreign travel experience will recognize the potential realism. The descriptions are mildly graphic/bloody.
Young Fu is such an "every man" that it makes him at once endearing and memorable. How many of us, especially in our youth, feel like our life is going along just great and then do something so stupid to mess it up that we can't even believe it ourselves. So we beat ourselves up for a while then suck it up, determine not to do anything so stupid again, get our life back on track, start to relax and enjoy the smooth sailing and then BOOM, we do something stupid again! Such is the course of Young Fu throughout this book.
One of my favorite parts of the book is Chapter 5. Young Fu, in his naivete had incurred a dept he could not pay. In fear of the debt collectors he fled the city to visit some relatives in a nearby town. At their country house he saw snow for the first time. An elderly lady called it Dragon's Breath and said it was good luck for the New Year. Young Fu carried two baskets back to ChungKing and sold it on the street. He made enough to pay his debt and still have money left over.
And speaking of innovation, we see the arrival of the first car in the city and the people's shocked reaction.
By Chapter 12 (p. 219 of 279) Young Fu's apprenticeship is done, but the challenges are not over. There is a bit of mystery re: a theft in which Young Fu plays a crucial role and also a mix up regarding some illegal drugs - again Young Fu plays a crucial role.
If this were a movie it would be at least PG-13. As a book it is more mild I'm sure - and in the end they all live happily ever after.