Reviewed by Carrie Wallace
The Long March Home
by Zoë S. Roy
Inanna Publications and Education, Inc.
November 2011, ISBN: 978-1-926708-27-0
A feminist historical fiction centering on the Chinese cultural revolution (1966-1976), The Long March Home reflects the lives and longings of three generations of women who have been or will become transnational migrants. Central characters include a Canadian-American matriarch, Agnes, her American-Chinese daughter, Meihua (translated as either America-China, Mayflora, or, Mayflower), and Meihua’s Chinese daughter, Yezi (meaning green leaf, symbolizing new life). Circumstances for this family present as ultimate injustices: As a young missionary, Agnes was forced to leave her lover in China as anti-western sentiment rose. Meihua, an art professor born in the United States, is imprisoned in 1966 for “re-education” for the crime of her higher education and place of birth; she has also never met her Chinese father. Lon, Meihua’s husband, has already been forced to live and work at a mine, following his own stint in prison. Though he is occasionally allowed to leave the labor camp to visit his family, his meager prison wages must support the children in the parents’ absence. The family’s illiterate housekeeper, Yao, garners serious judgment from the community as she raises the two younger children for eight years in this grinding poverty: an apparently self-sacrificial act. The children suffer too as they struggle to make sense of their circumstances in the world, their family, and their own identities.
The hope of Yezi’s family, Yao included, is for the child to flourish with a liberal arts education one day. Western readers won’t question the premise or, certainly, find such values held by the family to be problematic. Lon was originally imprisoned for the treason of suggesting that a Party secretary should be educated in a university. At the risk of being considered heavy-handed with plot points centering around what a liberal arts education signified in Mao’s Zedong’s China, Roy made sure every reader will come away understanding.
The author generally makes short work of predicting American readers’ sensibilities: during Agnes’ visit to China (following some unforeseen circumstances) she asks her granddaughter to move to Boston and live with her. This is a historically consistent plot turn, but to make no mistake, it is one Western readers in particular will like. The book is hardly anti-China, but Roy, a Chinese-Canadian, also does not sugarcoat the oppression, fear, and insanity of Mao’s regime. For example, a grieving, shocked young man whose parents were eaten by revolution-hungry villagers makes an appearance in the story. Disputed but detailed reports of widespread cannibalism during China’s Cultural Revolution exist, an inconceivable reality unknown to many Americans. This sort of horrifying history is certainly what readers will find interesting, as fiction and as fact. The author is realistic about the opportunity provided by the United States: above all it is clear that Agnes is in a position to offer a life of freedom to Yezi. Realizing that the author had her own experience living in China during the “cultural revolution” should convince readers that her storytelling motive is without ulterior motive or, laughably, xenophobia; she carried the knowledge of the total reality until she could tell it.
Imagining the circumstances of Mao’s regime is nearly impossible for those who have never known what it is like to live under the dictatorship of a homicidal megalomaniac. Roy takes it all on, and for readers who are listening, Roy’s own deeply internalized experience of her life in China during Mao’s dictatorship will be felt. At times, Roy seems to nearly romanticize the suffering of those who are provisionally “free” being unable to speak freely, but this is not to say that the dialogue has any weakness. Language has its limits, and there is much that can only be said with pauses or eye contact between her characters. Ludwig Wittgenstein would be proud of her handling of the dialogue and the narrative itself, though the intent may have been to channel Orwell more than the annals of analytic philosophy. Roy uses well-placed metaphorical imagery, usually of birds, to bring awareness of a multitude of constraints to a pique for all involved (particularly the reader).
Nor does she write her characters’ thoughts to question the regime itself, though it’s obvious that the adults in the story had done that years ago. Yezi is troubled by the thought that her mother may be an “anti-revolutionary”. As a labor camp visit concludes, Yao tells Meihua, “Reform your thoughts well.” Curious about her grandmother, after hearing that Agnes lives in the United States, Yezi asks, “Is she a foreigner?”. Yezi and her friend giggle about the idea of God and repeat a curious, subversive dictum to one another in English, “God Bless You.” The language of the novel is simple and completely unpretentious, but there is always a wellspring of emotion and lived experience behind the words. In a horrific display of historical realism, Roy demonstrates how some words lost their meaning and were imbued with whatever definition Mao’s regime decided on. At the same time, the revolution changed what could be said (or thought) at all. The consistent focus of the narrative is the triumph of the human spirit to hope for the best and love live in the worst of circumstances–though this too could never be said. After all, this was a world in which a little girl could be castigated for having said she liked chocolate: it’s not Chinese food. In such a world, there are only the perfect circumstances and luck of living under Mao’s glorious leadership and wisdom–and there is the normative reality, left up to the reader.
Before the central events occur towards the close of the book, hope and happiness come in the form of a red hair ribbon on a little Yezi’s birthday, a popsicle obtained with money from recycling garbage, a short visit with family at Meihua’s prison camp, Yezi’s cultivation of silkworms, and the love and loyalty shown to the whole family by the housekeeper and provisional parent, “Popo Yao”, without whose loving kindness the children certainly would have been street orphans. This tome is as much about family than it is about freedom, though the two themes intersect and at times supersede one another.
Lengthy meanderings into simple routines of daily life serve to make the characters and their lives more complex. The often fearless and hopeful Yezi, Meihua with her quiet strength, Yao the humble but sometimes fierce protector, and Agnes, always understating the depth of her wisdom–are all revealed in simple interactions and events. This novel deserves to be read by anyone curious what that era was like in China, but ultimately, the last thirty pages pack in too much action and disrupt the temporal flow. Readers may be confused by the onslaught. Such is life; we can never decide when life stops standing still: everything may happen at once, as though the universe could sort all of our hopes out and answer them all, catapulting our lives into one chaotic twist after another along the way.
This delicately conceived and ably-written family saga is Zoë Roy’s first novel. Readers of historical fiction will hope for more from this author in the future.