Being in the mood for another alternate cultural read and also wanting a short book to fit my distracted mood I picked up a used copy of this book at Half-priced Books in Fort Wayne recently.
Not very far into the first chapter it was apparent that I needed a history lesson about Chairman Mao's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution 1966-1976. During this time in China schools were closed, books were confiscated or destroyed, and educated urban children were taken from their families and put into what was called “re-education” programs. Children of perceived enemies of the state like doctors, lawyers, professors, and other highly educated people were taken from their families and sent to the mountains and rural areas. These children were put to work as laborers in mines, in fields, or on farms. Their lives were harsh, they were unprepared, and many families never saw their children again.
Balzac is the story of two of these children. Over a period of several years two young boys, the narrator and his childhood friend Luo, the sons of doctors, strive to make a life for themselves and to keep alive their spirits while hauling manure up a dangerous mountain and working in a coal mine. Distractions are few until through another boy they acquire a cache of forbidden western novels in Chinese translation, one of which is Balzac's Ursule Mirouet. Using their newfound material he boys become skilled at storytelling. They also go periodically to a nearby village to watch movies for which it is expected that they return and retell the stories to the villagers. There they meet the illiterate little seamstress of the title and Luo falls in love with her.
They hold out hope to one day be reclaimed by their families if they follow the rules and work hard. In the mean time Luo hopes to use the contraband literature to educate his lover so she can one day be his equal and hopefully his partner.
There are several stories within the main story and the style of the author is perfectly attuned to sharing them in such a way as to keep the reader engaged. I had to think that perhaps this might be a good choice for a high school class. Can American teens envision having family, conveniences, clothing, formal education, and all reading materials (except those prescribed by an oppressive government) removed from their lives and then being put to hard labor? Could it serve as a springboard for students to investigate the history of China? The unexpected ending and the way each book they read profoundly affected the boys was worth the read alone.