Friday, August 3, 2007

The Cultural Revolution ... for young readers

When I was in 10th grade, my forward-thinking social studies teacher, Mrs. Bianco (one of those memorable teachers you remember for the rest of your life) had us study modern China ... right about the time that Nixon made his historic visit. Our scholarship didn't extend much beyond Mao and Chou though ... certainly I didn't know that millions of Chinese had died of starvation in the years prior to the visit by Nixon. In my post-60s, oh-so-enlightened 10th grade knowledge, though, I believed that Mao and Communism had been better for poor Chinese than the years of despotic dynasties that preceded it. With a few more years [ ;-) ] of experience -- coupled with the crash course in Chinese history that I got on my trip last month -- I understand a little better that the poor are mostly poor and hungry no matter who is in power.

All this is in aid of the story of Mao's Last Dancer, Li Cunxin (pronounced Shwenshin), who is slowly starving -- along with his family -- in a northern Chinese village near Qingdao during the Cultural Revolution, when he was plucked from his home at the age of 11 by friends of Madame Mao and taken to dancing school in Beijing to be trained in all aspects of dance for the betterment of the Chinese people (or some such mumbo jumbo that was spouted in those days). Although he had had no dance training up until that point, Li took to the training (and the food) like a fish to water. Then, right in the middle of his dance education, the Cultural Revolution ends, Mao dies, Madame Mao is disgraced, and -- at the age of 18 -- Li ends up in Houston, Texas! Well, of course, it wasn't like that exactly, but his story was a fantastic one.

He wrote his biography for adult readers, but someone (who?) decided to create a slimmed down version for "young readers." Is this version only available in audio? A quick glance at Books in Print tells me that there isn't a print version of this title. So thank goodness for Bolinda, the Australian audiobook publisher (just as an aside ... I'm so glad that Bolinda markets its titles in the US, because we often get audio versions of books that just aren't published over here!), who -- evidently -- thought that teens might be interested in Li's story -- abridged (I'm guessing here) to leave off much of his post-defection life? Read by Paul English, Li's story of growing up in China is a fascinating one. In many ways, it's a survival story -- but it's also an authentic peek into a culture and time that we Westerners know little about.

I thought my appreciation of this title was enhanced by listening to it in China, but I think a number of teens would enjoy his story -- just because it is so different from their own experiences. What makes it compelling, though, is that -- like most good teen literature -- Mao's Last Dancer is really about a young person's search for identity and place in the world.

Narrator English reads with youthful enthusiasm and a certain amount of innocence. He admirably trips his tongue over the Chinese names, and maintains a consistent English-y accent throughout the narration. Every once in awhile an Australian vowel peeps up, but those are simply entertaining. He even gives an outsized performance of a choreographer named Ben Stevenson that stays just on the right side of being a cariacature of a Texan (although in checking the Wikipedia entry, it seems that Mr. Stevenson is English ... oh well).

Someone else on my committee nominated this title (I confess I'd been avoiding it), and I'm glad she did. I think this will make a great addition to our list. A yes vote from me.

For those who like their history lite, here's the Wikipedia entry on Li Cunxin (seemingly taken straight from the book and/or written by Li himself). I also enjoyed checking out old New York Times articles about Li's defection in 1981.

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