Freedom Swimmer by Wai Chim
Published August 27, 2016 by Allen & Unwin
Source: ARC from the publisher
Rating: 4 stars
From the blurb: Ming survived the famine that killed his parents during China's 'Great Leap Forward', and lives a hard but adequate life, working in the fields...When a group of city boys comes to the village as part of a Communist Party re-education program, Ming and his friends aren't sure what to make of the new arrivals. They're not used to hard labour and village life. But despite his reservations, Ming befriends a charming city boy called Li. The two couldn't be more different, but slowly they form a bond over evening swims and shared dreams...But as the bitterness of life under the Party begins to take its toll on both boys, they begin to imagine the impossible: freedom.
Freedom Swimmer is Wai Chim's first novel for young adults and is based true events and her father's life in China. The prologue is set in the winter of 1962, a year after China's Great Leap Forward. Eleven year old Ming Hong lives in Dingzai, a small fishing village on the Dapeng Peninsula, in the district of Longgang, Guangdong province. His father, who has been missing for years, loved to swim and instilled this love in Ming as well, but he disappeared one night. Now Ming's mother has died of starvation. He takes her body to the river and returns to an empty house. It's at this time that Ming meets Fei, a girl from Long-chi, a neighbouring village, but they are soon separated and Ming doesn't have the courage to seek her out.
The story picks up again in 1968. Ming now shares a room with three other boys, all without families. They live in poverty, with no electricity or running water. They work each day in the fields, overseen by the Cadre, who is employed by the Communist Party, under instruction from Chairman Mao Zedong. Working earns them points which are used for rations and as a way to keep them in check. It's a time of great suspicion, the smallest change in behaviour or one wrong word can earn you the label of reactionary or counter-revolutionary, and can lead to imprisonment or death.
Soon a group of youths from the city, former Red Guards, arrive. They are there to learn how to work in the fields and to be reeducated, as well as to help spread the word of Mao. Li is on of these boys and he soon befriends Ming.
From memory, we didn't learn a lot of Chinese history in high school. We covered World War I, II, and Vietnam, but I do recall learning a little of Mao, perhaps from conversations at home, and possibly from my own reading. It's a time that lead to a lot of deaths, with estimates as high as 35 million people. That's so sad and shocking and I'm sure this must be a time that still has repercussions for many families today.
The friendship that blooms between Ming and Li was heartwarming and really highlighted how tense and fear-based most relationships must have been at the time. Ming isn't even sure he can trust his closest friend Tian because you never know who will turn on you. Ming still loves to swim and manages to get away to indulge every now and then. When he discovers that Li cannot swim, he sets about teaching him, something that cements their bond. Ming later reveals to Li that his father talked of escaping China by swimming to Hong Kong, a treacherous journey.
Right from the start my heart broke for Ming, he's orphaned at a young age and there's no one in the village to care for him because they are all suffering too. The atmosphere was palpable throughout the story, I could sense his fear and loneliness. I felt so worried for Ming, Li, Fei and Tian, sure they were being watched, that at any moment they could be accused of traitorous acts and taken away or killed.
Freedom Swimmer is a beautifully told story of a time in history that is painful and horrifying. It's obviously a story close to the author's heart and she writes about it with such honesty and feeling. It highlights how far humans will go to survive, and the bonds they forge with friends and family. It would make an excellent school text, and is perfect for both teens and adults.
Thank you to Allen & Unwin for my review copy. RRP A$16.99.
Cover design: Debra Billson.
I adore this cover, it's beautiful and is perfect for the story.
I started with 2 coats of Zoya Maura and used acrylic paint for the design.