Revolution is Not a Dinner Party, by Ying Chang Compestine
Revolution is Not a Dinner Party is a work of fiction, but one that is largely based on the author's own life experience—she grew up in China in the early '70s, during the last few years of the Cultural Revolution. The title comes from this Mao Zedong quote:
A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery, it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained, and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another. (104)
The book opens with this stellar first line, giving the reader a sense of foreboding from the very beginning:
The summer of 1972, before I turned nine, danger began knocking on doors all over China. (5)
After setting the stage with that tension, she pulls back a bit, describing Ling's comfortable home life with her two doctor parents—her father is a surgeon and her mother is a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine—in an apartment near the hospital where both of her parents work. Her prose is full of details about smells and colors and textures and tastes, and while she's doing all of that, she also sets up the family dynamics—Ling is very much the apple of her father's eye, while her mother is more strict, especially in regards to what is and is not appropriate behavior for a young girl:
"Ling," Mother yelled from the kitchen. "How many times do I have to tell you? Don't laugh like that!" Plates clattered in disapproval.
Father covered his mouth with his right hand.
I covered mine quickly, the way Mother had taught me, even though I was no longer laughing. I didn't understand why Father liked my laugh but Mother didn't. (15)
The danger she alluded to earlier comes along quickly, though. Ling's family is forced to give up a room in their apartment to Comrade Li, the new political officer at the hospital—installed there to teach staff about to Chairman Mao's ideas. Ling doesn't entirely understand the ramifications of what's happening—and one point she wonders why her mother doesn't protest when the Communist Party officials dig through their belongings—but she very definitely picks up on the undercurrents of tension:
I stayed close to Mother as she followed behind them. She wore the smile she gave only to visitors, but she kept rubbing the third button on her white shirt, something she did when she was nervous. (19)
As I read, I kept thinking back to The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a book that I found HUGELY problematic. Like this book, Pajamas features a young main character who is in the middle of a huge, long-term historical event that results in violence, death, and shifts felt around the world—in that case, WWII and the Holocaust—but who, due to perspective and age, doesn't entirely understand the whats and whys of his experience. The main difference being that Compestine entirely pulls it off in Revolution—Ling doesn't always understand all of the nuances of the events that surround and affect her, but she's AWARE of them; in Pajamas, the main character was so unaware of his own world that it didn't feel like he was even living in it.
But I digress.
At first, the changes that Comrade Li represents don't affect Ling directly. She knows that her parents are worried and scared, that they're getting more and more careful about the appearance they—a family with direct ties to the United States—present to the ever-watchful eyes of the Party:
Dr. Wong's brother sent them money and packages from Hong Kong every week. We used to receive letters from overseas, too, but at the beginning of winter, after receiving a letter that had been opened, Mother became nervous and told Father to stop writing to his friends. (24)
But when food gets scarce, the heat in their building is turned off, and people she recognizes—and later, people she KNOWS—start getting branded as traitors and hauled off to prison, life as she knows it changes forever. In this scene, the woman being taken away is a stranger, but later it's her neighbors, her friends, her father:
A green jeep stopped in front of the apartment building across the courtyard. Comrade Li and three teenage boys ran inside. We heard doors banging, dishes breaking, and someone screaming.
"Something bad is happening! Let's get inside," urged Mrs. Wong. Niu and I didn't move, so she stood behind, wrapping her arms around us.
A few moments later, Comrade Li and the boys pushed someone out of the building.
"They're arresting an undercover enemy," I said. My heart pounded.
"What undercover enemy? Who is it?" Niu asked.
I scrunched up part of my white skirt into my fist. We couldn't see the enemy's face. A white pillowcase with the red words NUMBER 4 HOSPITAL covered it. It must have been a lady. One of her purple slippers was left outside the building. Her head jerked from side to side as Comrade Li and the boys shoved her into the jeep. (50)
There's a lot of hard, hard stuff in here. She experiences betrayal:
"They caught Niu in the river and brought him back late last night." Father sat heavily in a chair. "Five Red Guards interrogated him all night. Today he drew a class line and denounced his parents and us as his enemies." Father stared at the floor with tears in his eyes. "In exchange, Comrade Li will let him stay in the city and present him to the neighborhood as a model revolutionary who turned against the evil bourgeoisie." (123)
But Compestine frames it in such a way that it's clear to the reader that everyone involved understands why—at least at some level—Niu was willing to turn on his friends. She's generally matter-of-fact in her delivery, but the order in which she lays the events out allows the moral complexity of every situation to come through.
Ling deals with confiscations and raids, she stands in line for food and learns how to game the system as best she can. She witnesses the aftermath of a suicide, and learns that because of the blowback on families and loved ones, even death is not an escape—and even harder, she has to reconcile that with the knowledge that her mother has, at the very least, considered suicide:
Comrade Li shouted through the loudspeaker. "Everyone, take a close look at the number one traitor!" He pointed at the figure beneath the sheet. "By committing suicide," he continued, "she refused to be reeducated and showed her hatred for Chairman Mao and the Revolution!" (156-7)
But even as she deals with events and situations that most adults would be hard-pressed to muddle their way through, her perspective and voice and importantly, her frustrations, stay true to her age—whether it's in dealing with bullies at school, or the seeming hypocrisy of adults:
Each day, my list of questions grew. But I had no one to ask. Father no longer told me, "Smart children always ask questions." Instead, now he said, "Children don't have to know everything." (76)
Or the flat-out jealousy of an only child suddenly having to share her parents:
I was sad he had lost both his parents and had no one at home to take care of him. But in my heart, I had to admit that I wished he wasn't spending so much time with us, taking my parents' attention away from me. During our English lessons, he loved to show off, acting as if he already knew every new word. I missed those times when Father taught only me. (107-8)
It's a historical that does its job in giving the reader a vivid, multifaceted picture of a specific place in a specific time, but it's also a coming-of-age story that shows a girl growing up, taking on more and more responsibility, becoming self-reliant and independent. I'm sad that this appears to be the author's only novel, though I did just order a copy of her short story collection, A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts.