Sunday, January 24, 2010

Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze

You know, a fair number of adults today seem to enjoy Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze, by Elizabeth Foreman Lewis. A couple of my friends have said positive things about it, and it's got an average rating of 3.56 on, which gives it more stars than 1/3 of the other Newbery prize winners. The Allen County Newbery Book Discussion Group even rated it relatively high (at 61 out of 88).

I can't figure them out. I liked Secret of the Andes more than Young Fu! Heck, I actually had more fun reading Dobry. And it's not that I don't like reading about historic China. I liked The Good Earth when I read it in high school, and I liked it even more when I read it again a couple of years ago (interestingly, Pearl S. Buck wrote an introduction to Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze for the 1973 edition that I checked out of the library).

Unfortunately, unlike the characters in The Good Earth (which won the Pulitzer Prize 1932, the year before Young Fu won the Newbery...hmmm, is there a connection?), I found the characters in Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze rather uninspired. Downright boring, in fact. I kept waiting for Young Fu to do something exciting, but even his minor transgressions were disappointing to me (unlike Johnny Tremain, for instance, another Newbery-winning apprentice whose flaws kept me reading).

I thought Scholar Wang was going to be an important character in his own right (especially as he appears in the first chapter), but he seems to exist mainly to embody "Classic Wisdom" (p. 10), to provide the means for Young Fu to learn to read and write, and for Young Fu to be able to show appreciation for the elderly and to display compassion when Scholar Wang is sick.

The women in Young Fu are even more disappointing. Fu Be Be, Young Fu's mother, is portrayed as rather stingy, short-sighted, and superstitious, and there really aren't any other important female characters in the book. The idea that men in Chungking (modern Chongqing) considered women to be foolish, emotional, and weak is often mentioned, and although it is clear (I hope!) that this is an historic cultural perspective, it is unfortunate that this idea is not countered by a single remotely sympathetic female character - with the possible exception of a blond foreign doctor (or possibly a nurse). I don't think it's true that girls don't enjoy boy's coming-of-age stories, but I don't think that too many girls today would enjoy this one. And it is just discouraging to keep reading about women's roles in this society without ever hearing their voices, like you do in The Good Earth.
Girls always cried during the tedious moons of foot binding. He had seen them often enough in the village, though a few of the farm women kept their daughters' feet of natural size that they might help in the fields. But this was not common. Everyone agreed that it was better to stand the agony of foot binding than the stigma of possessing large feet. And even though deformed feet permitted a woman to work only around the house, they were important in getting a husband.....He, Young Fu, was glad that his mother's feet were small; that she was not a coolie woman was plain for all to see (p. 39).
I didn't mind reading about the mechanics of making brass (although Young Fu is apprenticed to a coppersmith, the story revolves around brass), and of the selling of pots, kettles, braziers, and trays, but I thought Lewis was at her most interesting when she was describing the city of Chungking itself. The city streets, steaming paving stones, shops, the tenement in Chair-Makers' Way, and the soldiers, political activists in the tea shops, and the deadly flood - I thought that all of these things were much more interesting than hardworking, virtuous Fu Yuin-fah. But I really want more than a travelogue and history when I'm reading historic fiction; I want interesting characters and a compelling plot, too!

The chapters in Young Fu are rather disjointed - each chapter reads like a separate story, which works well for some books (like The Graveyard Book, for instance), but didn't help keep my flagging interest in Young Fu's story. Lewis' frequent use of proverbs annoyed me, too, even when I agreed with the sentiments. They just seemed a bit trite and forced to me:

Laziness never filled a rice bowl (p. 16).

At birth, men are by nature good of heart (p. 54).

Character is made by rising above one's misfortunes (p. 149...doesn't this contradict the previous one?).

He who rides on a tiger cannot dismount (p. 180).

Medicines are bitter in the mouth, but they cure sickness (p. 197).
The story (in my edition, anyway) concludes with ten pages of Notes by Alison R. Lanier, updating readers on some of the technological and political changes that have taken place between Young Fu's original publication in 1932 and the printing of the new edition in 1973. Since almost as long a timespan has passed since the Notes were written ("Planes reach almost any part of China the same day. Many of the planes are British turbo-jets; others are of Russian make", p. 259), with some pretty major changes occurring in China, I think it's time for an update of the update.


Anonymous said...

Thanks to all for the interesting reviews. I discovered this blog just last fall and have been enjoying your reviews and the challenge of reading the Newbery Award books.

Gene in Tacoma

Anonymous said...

This author didn't really do her research, because Young Fu's mom should be Fu Tai tai, since in chinese, that means the wife of a guy, and Fu Be Be means Male.

Anonymous said...

I happened to find this book at the libary when I tried to find something to read for my kids. At first it was the Newbery Award encouraged me to grab the book and another reason is that I personally was from Chungking and that early part of history really attracts me. I really enjoyed reading the book and similar to the blogger those Chungking day to day life, the city walls, the first introduction of public bus, are pleasures to read. Regarding the women figures I think we shouldn't forget the timing of the story, 20s in last century. At that time, even foot binding was so common, and most people believed that it's a virtue for a woman to have no special knowlege or wisdom. Therefore I think the critics on this part is not fair to the author. Just my 2 cents.