'A Hundred Flowers' Looks At China's Revolution

NPR's Alan Cheuse reviews the new novel A Hundred Flowers by Gail Tsukiyama that takes place in China during 1950s and '60s.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. In the late 1950s, Chairman Mao used poetic language to encourage a new openness, saying: Let 100 flowers bloom. Let 100 schools of thought contend. The crackdown that followed have been the subject of many books by historians.

Now, novelist Gail Tsukiyama takes on that tumultuous time in a new novel. Alan Cheuse has a review.

ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: "A Hundred Flowers" focuses on one small family in Guangzhou - a husband, an herbalist wife, a male child named Tao and his grandfather, Wei, an art historian. As the novel opens, the husband has been arrested and sent north for reeducation. His young son, Tao, is quite forlorn and impetuously climbs way up in a nearby kapok tree so that he might view the mountains he and his father often gazed upon, and he takes a terrible fall.

The family's emotional descent becomes Tsukiyama's great subject as these good and ordinary people suffer the pains - economic and spiritual - inflicted by Mao's great ruse. Tsukiyama avoids the direct politics of the situation. Instead, she pulls us into the story by means of painstaking detail about everyday life at the time - the streets, the weather, the shops, the meals, the clothes, the kindnesses and weariness of life at this time.

About two-thirds of the way through, she twists the plot and sets in motion a little quest when Wei, Tao's grandfather, decides to travel a great distance to the north, to a town that's known as the cradle of Chinese civilization to seek out his son in the reeducation camp, a plot device that kicked in for me a bit late. But, by then, I was following this family almost as though it were my own and stayed all the way to the end of their story.

BLOCK: That's our critic Alan Cheuse with his review of the novel, "A Hundred Flowers," by Gail Tsukiyama.

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