Some of the best nonfiction books are simple stories of people living through circumstances that many of us would find hard to imagine, but were very real to those who survived. Feather in the Storm by Emily Wu is one such story. As a victim of a revolution that some in China still will not call a failure, she takes us through her journey from despair to hope and from childhood to adulthood in a land that was changing rapidly, and not for the better.
When one takes a really critical look at communism in the 20th century, it’s no wonder so many countries (ours in particular) were so dead-set on stamping it out. What started as an inspiring political theory was taken to monstrous lengths and twisted into an excuse for famine, the slaughter of perceived anti-communist thinkers, and oppressive totalitarian government.
During the reign of Mao Zedong, vast changes were made to China and the constant restructuring was strongly modeled on the Soviet Union and its iron grip of communism. Mao was a great admirer of the Soviet system and set out to emulate their system of government, something he managed to do all too well. The Cultural Revolution was initially thought to be the dawn of a new and glorious era for China, but quickly proved to be a nightmare. Much as had occurred in the U.S.S.R., intellectuals were singled out and persecuted, dissent was punishable by death, and the people, especially those who’d had money, land or power before the revolution, were stripped of all and forced to live in horrible conditions as a sort of penance for their former lives of privilege. Famine ravaged the land, killing millions. Books were burned, propaganda was rampant, and people were dragged out, beaten and spat upon for the mere suggestion of not being “red" enough.
In the midst of all this, Wu Yimao was born in 1958 to an English professor and his wife. With her father spending years in a concentration camp for “black" (or non-communist) prisoners, her family went from being highly respected and comfortable to being poor and constantly suspected of treason. Yimao’s life was shaped by the reputation of her family – in everything she did, she was reminded of her family’s black status. With the government constantly coming up with new ways to oppress its perceived enemies, Yimao’s childhood is full of constant struggle, frequent moves to wherever her family was being sent at the government’s whim, and frequent bouts of illness that nearly killed her several times.
Wu’s book is a lush, unsentimental tale of struggle and eventual victory over unimaginable oppression and difficulty. Her family’s intense hardship led Yimao to learn to do whatever it took to gain some ground for herself – joining the Communist Youth League to earn status, and eventually teaching out in the countryside, sent to a remote location because nobody wanted to take in a girl from a black family. Her resilience in the face of all that took place was her eventual salvation; she survived when many of her friends did not. As much as she managed to do to get past her family’s supposed crimes, everywhere she went the authorities were suspicious and she was singled out as a nearly unforgivable traitor to the cause. Many of her peers with similar backgrounds were sent to far-off villages to be peasants, never to be heard from again, or died in childbirth or committed suicide or suffered any number of fates that Yimao was vigilant not to let happen to her. Surrounded by death, she became determined to transcend her circumstances.
Wu’s prose is powerful, allowing the reader to get a cold hard look at the reality of one girl’s life under Mao and his Communist government. One wonders what combination of dumb luck and sheer determination helped save Yimao when so many of her friends didn’t make it.
The book ends in just the right place, letting the reader know that Yimao will be OK but letting the previous struggle stand apart from platitudes or a saccharine happy ending. One can tell from the book cover that she eventually made it to the U.S. and changed her name to Emily, but it’s still a bit of a relief when the book ends and Yimao is obviously on a better path. This story of hope and survival is never weighted down by melodrama or falsely cheerful assurances. The story is simply told, and beautifully so, and Wu’s struggle is all the more remarkable for her telling of it. A superb book.