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Wednesday, June 03, 2015


Dreams of Joy is Lisa See’s sequel to Shanghai Girls, and what a sequel it is!  I didn’t even realize it was a sequel when I hastily selected the book, but I quickly caught on.  Shanghai Girls was so memorable that I was back in the story almost immediately. 

See moves us ahead many years, and the baby in Shanghai Girls is now a Los Angeles resident and a college student at the University of Chicago.  The family exists here, but China is still a part of their lives.  Much has happened in China over the years—especially the Communist Revolution led by Mao tse-tung.  The horrors caused by Japan are over, and the utopian era of communism has begun.

Or so Joy, the impressionable 19 year old college student, vaguely embarrassed by her family’s old-fashioned ways and immersed in the perfection of the communist vision through activity in the university’s Chinese Students Democratic Christian Association (and her boyfriend Joe), believes.  Additionally, as the novel opens, Joy reveals that she has just learned the truth about her mother, father, and aunt. The combination of these influences lead her to return to China—a country inviting Overseas Chinese to come back, to leave their evil capitalistic habits behind and to become a builder in the new and perfect communist world.

Every reader knows that outlook will lead to heartache, but Lisa See weaves a tale that is at once universal in nature—a young girl searching for her identity and her independence—and specific—a story that reflects the horrors of Mao’s leadership and speaks to the horrors of Mao’s Great Leap Forward where millions of Chinese starved to death.  Actual numbers of victims could not even be counted because the dead simply piled up and littered the roadsides and fields.  Cannibalism occurred especially when one family traded their baby for another.  In the end, there were simply too many to bury.  So we are also getting a chapter in China’s recent history.

With the first page of the book, Joy reveals that she has learned the truth about her lineage; her aunt is really her mother.  Her “parents” are really her aunt and her husband, Sam.  Her real father is Z.G., an artist still in China.  Sam recently committed suicide rather than face possible deportation to China.  The FBI’s interest in Sam stemmed from Joy’s involvement with the communist-leaning Chinese Students Democratic Christian Association at the University of Chicago.  Joy feels she is the cause of his death and allows the guilt to lead her back to China to try to atone.

The year is 1957.  Joy’s world is topsy turvy, and she intends to return to China to find her real father and to help build the ideal communist world—a world her American family has warned is a farce and lie time and again.

See does a wonderful job creating a narration by the two main characters, Joy and Pearl, her "mother" and original Shanghai Girl.  The reader feels the voice of each: the differences in age, experience, and aims.  Each one needs to grow in understanding not only of the world around her but also of each other.  All of that universal growth occurs within the context of a crazed, violent, repressive, and, in many cases, ignorant world that must be navigated with great care and duplicity. 

As readers, we get to see how “mother love” is not always a product of giving birth to a child, and that at its height, mother love is selfless even if the child is lost or selfish or rebellious.  We see another unfortunate example of how an entire people can be lured into submissiveness to the point of death or can be submissive enough for oppressive leadership to gain such power and control that the people lose their options and freedom. 

Dreams of Joy, obviously a title with a symbolic meaning, is rich in description of a country relatively few of us have visited and which we certainly have not seen as it is depicted here.  See’s scholarly research and journeys in today’s much more open China with people like Amy Tan give her an insider’s view that she shares with us.

Lisa See is certainly one of our great contemporary authors.  Read Shanghai Girls first, and you will want to follow up with Dreams of Joy.

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