I often have great difficulty reviewing a book I feel a profound affection for. Freedom Swimmer by Wai Chim may be one of those books. There is an aura of Amy Tan about Chim’s depiction set in Communist China of two boys and their astounding quest to find a better life. If you think this sounds less than remarkable, read on.
Chim has fashioned a tale base on the true-life events of her father who made an incredible lunge for freedom when at the age of 19, he swam from the Dapeng Peninsula to Tung Ping Chau Island, Hong Kong in hope of finding a better life in the then British colony. I love books that reveal another of history’s amazing episodes, one that I may only have had peripheral knowledge about before, or in this case, no solid previous understanding. Stories like these, shared with today’s children, are priceless. The tales of the real life freedom swimmers are remarkable and chilling in their own right.
Freedom Swimmer chimes with Mao Tse-tung quotes and the fervour of Communist China, just pulling itself up from the so-called ‘Great Leap Forward’. Ming’s village is stricken by famine and poverty throughout this era, as are most in rural China. He loses his parents but survives and along with dozens of other orphaned village children, he and his closest friend, pseudo brother Tian, scrape together an existence that is both grinding and bereft of any real affection.
One day, the village cadre makes an announcement. As part of the new re-education program initiated by Mao’s self-serving government, city youths are sent to Ming’s village to be ‘taught’ by the peasants. This is of course also an insidious way of injecting more Maoism’s into the population of China, an explicit agenda to control and monopolise thought.
Ming’s fellow villagers are not so easily swayed although few of them express their so-called ‘imperialist’ doubts aloud fearing terrible retribution. Tian is the first to laugh in the farcical face of Communism yet like Ming, begrudgingly accepts the new arrivals, as is the cadre’s directive. To his surprise, Ming quickly befriends one of the city boys named Li. Li is a staunch supporting member of the Red Guards but also warm and intelligent enough to approach his newfound village life with considered respect. He encourages Ming to express his dreams, Ming teaches him to swim. Although worlds of thinking separate them, they form a deep bond and respect for one another. As is often the case when great divides define relationships, those on one side slowly begin to yearn for the opposite.
Then the unthinkable happens; Li’s father is branded a Party traitor. Li immediately falls from favour, plunging into disgrace and unrelenting torment from his erstwhile comrades. Ming too is suffering from his untenable position as a village no-body, and is frequently frustrated at not being able to be with the girl he secretly admires.
Rather than continue their oppressive lives, the teenagers plan to risk the shark-infested waters between their peninsular and Hong Kong and swim to salvation. It is a great measure of the stoicism of humanity that so many, thousands in fact, of Chinese youths braved this desperate escape; spurned by nothing more than their hopes for ‘a better life and greater opportunity.’ Shark attack, illness, dog patrols and armed guards contributed to the immense risk these swimmers took in their bid for freedom.
Chim recounts this period with confidence and true affection. Her writing is moving, poetic and substantial with strong character convictions and emotion to maintain a midgrade audience. This is a fascinating if not contemptible, chaotic time in Chinese history that captures the themes of taking chances, striving for a better life and perseverance with authenticity and feeling.
Fans of Chim’s previous junior fiction series, Chook Chook will appreciate her relaxed, more grown-up storytelling style and shared family history. I know I did. Stories have the power to unite and enlighten. Freedom Swimmer is auspiciously, one of those stories.
If you can’t wait, the book is available here, now.
Stick around for the fascinating and touching insight into Wai Chim’s father’s story which inspired this compelling story to be written in the first place.
Allen & Unwin August 2016