My review policy on Smoky Talks Books has always been to review books published by small presses and written by small press authors. But occasionally, a book comes along that touches me so deeply, that is so compelling, I want to share it with my readers. Lisa See’s Dreams of Joy is one such book.
I had the privilege to meet Ms. See and get to know her a bit when we were both guest speakers at the 2012 Whittier College Book Faire in Whittier, CA, a few months back. She is a beautiful person both inside and out, and it was such a pleasure to talk to her. She seemed more eager to talk about her family, and the impending birth of her grandchild, than about her books, about which she speaks modestly—a refreshing change from some authors I’ve met.
Dreams of Joy opens with eighteen-year-old Joy reeling from the news that the woman she thought was her mother is really her aunt, and her aunt is really her birth mother. The man she thought was her father has committed suicide, and she learns her birth father is a man who still lives in China. The year is 1957, and China is closed.
This doesn’t keep Joy from running away from her Los Angeles home and finding her way to Shanghai to look for her birth father—a man who is surprisingly easy to locate because he is the famous Chinese artist, Z.G. Li, whom both her aunt and mother were once in love with. While surprised to find he has fathered a child, Z.G. takes Joy under his wing, not so much out of love as to share with her what constitutes art under Mao.
Joy throws herself into the idealism of the New Society in Red China. She moves to a commune, marries a man she meets there, and works hard to bring Chairman Mao’s dreams of a perfect communist society to light.
But it doesn’t take long for Joy to realize the Great Leap Forward, as it is called, is having devastating effects on the Chinese people. Encouraged to plant wheat where rice once grew and to plant three seedlings where only one should grow, led to crop failure of such catastrophic proportion famine broke out across China.
Meanwhile, Joy’s mother, Pearl (who is really her aunt), has come to Shanghai to find her daughter. As Joy did before her, Pearl find Z.G. and through him finds Joy. But Joy has no interest at all in reconciling with her mother, of forgiving her for the lies she grew up with, or returning to the United States with her. Pearl is forced to confront old demons of her own as she tries desperately to save her daughter from a bad marriage and, ultimately, from starving to death as the famine grips the land. The story becomes a race against time: can the family get out of China before they all starve to death?
As with her previous books, See’s research of her subject matter is meticulous. In her talk at Whittier College the day we met, she recounted her trip to China to research the places she writes about in the book. Of course, she could not go back in time 50 years to the time of the Great Leap Forward. But to be able to see the land, the countryside, where it is estimated as many as 43 million people starved to death during the famine, had to have an emotional affect on her. That emotional affect comes through loud and strong in her prose.
While Ms. See does a great job of filling in back story where it is necessary to understand Joy’s relationship with her aunt and mother, as well as the relationships between her aunt, mother and Z.G., I do wish I had read Shanghai Girls before reading Dreams of Joy. I never got lost or confused for not having read the former before the latter, but I think it would have made Joy’s anger and feeling of betrayal more real to me. That, of course, is no fault of the author—I chose to read the books out of order. But I think if I were recommending this book to another reader, I would suggest they read Shanghai Girls first.
And that is exactly what I am doing—recommending you read Shanghai Girls, then pick up a copy of Dreams of Joy.
This is not the pretty book See’s Peony in Love was. This is a gritty book about a time in history the Chinese government tried desperately to hide from the rest of the world. See brings the truth about Mao’s Great Leap Forward to light not only to Joy, who must learn the hard way that fresh-faced idealism can lead to disaster, but to the reader as well. The book will bring tears to your eyes in places, but they are tears well shed. It is a beautiful read. Even the chapters where the famine has hit hardest and hideous atrocities are happening (which I won’t go into here), See’s love for China and compassion for its people shines through.
It would be hard not to love this book. I’m looking forward to backtracking now and reading Shanghai Girls and filling in the gaps in the stories of these compelling characters.