When politics bring childhood to an end

'Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party' is a child's view of China's Cultural Revolution.

No fantastic adventures are required to create the dramatic tension in Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party, Ying Chang Compestine's young adult novel about life during China's Cultural Revolution. Here, history and reality are scary enough.

"The summer of 1972, before I turned nine, danger began knocking on doors all over China," the book begins. The story Compestine tells is not exactly her own, but it comes close. Like her young narrator, Ying, Compestine was just a young girl when her country began changing around her. And like Ying, Compestine's parents were doctors comfortably ensconced in China's middle class – in other words, prime targets for the wrath of Mao's Red Guard.

Ying's story is a frightening one, and involves situations no child should ever have to face. She watches as tyranny and fear distort all of life's transactions and she comes to face the fact that even the adults she loves and trusts most cannot protect her.

But as a means of helping young adults (and adults as well) to understand this horrific slice of history, the narrative excels.

Ying tells her story from a child's-eye view. Through Ying we watch Westerners disappear from her city (Wuhan) even as political slogans begin to sprout. Neighbors stop chatting in courtyards and the moldy smell of paste (used on political posters) hangs heavy in the air.

One by one, Ying's pleasures disappear. The bright floral dresses she loves are "counterrevolutionary" and must be replaced by Mao jackets. Treats like red bean ice cream and chocolate squares vanish, and suddenly a little girl is lucky if she has as much as a whole egg to eat on her birthday.

But the real horror is psychological. Ying's family are branded bourgeois enemies of the state and Ying discovers that she is at the mercy of vindictive classmates and traitorous neighbors. Many adults around her – her parents included – fare even worse.

Ying's childhood is at an end. She must find the courage to endure and she does. The book ends just as the political tide is changing and Ying gets to see those who bullied her fall abruptly from power.

In a sense it's a happy ending – although still not a pretty sight. But "Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party" remains a vivid account of one of the sad follies of history, made rich with details that only an impressionable young witness could supply.

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