Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Snow Falling in Spring by Moying Li - review

Snow Falling in Spring by Moying Li
I have to say, I always found the story of Mao's War on Sparrows to be a little far-fetched. Leader of one of the world's largest countries, and he takes aim at... sparrows? Seems a little petty. On the other hand, commanding every man, woman, and child in China to go outside, 24 hours a day, for weeks, and frighten off millions of tiny birds so that they have nowhere to land and drop dead out of sheer exhaustion? Inconceivably arrogant. Almost an arbitrary exercise of power. Also, I know it was 1958, but surely somebody must have realized that eliminating such a widespread species might have complicated consequences.

All in all, it sounds exactly like the kind of thing some short-sighted, delusional monarch might decree in a fairy tale.

I recently read about it in Sparrow Girl, a picture book set during the Cultural Revolution, written by The Talented Sara Pennypacker (the Clementine books, Pierre In Love) and illustrated by the likewise talented Yoko Tanaka. A little girl rescues a few sparrows from the Sparrow War and keeps them in her family's barn. In spring, when it becomes apparent that the absence of sparrows has caused a proportional increase in the insect population, and crops all across China are being ravaged because of this, she releases the last sparrows in all of China, and there is hope.

It's a lovely book and a sweet story, but it reinforced my "Naw... really? Oh come on," attitude about this event.

But I think Moying Li's memoir (the book I'm actually reviewing), subtitled "Coming of age in China during the Cultural Revolution," finally has me convinced.
And so, day after day we watched the battle unfold as vigilant Beijingers stood their ground. Then, suddenly, sparrows started to fall from the sky, utterly exhausted. Soon there were hardly any left. At dinner one evening, flushed with pride as he waved a copy of the People's Daily, Baba announced that in our city alone we had eradicated over 400,000 sparrows!
Moying Li takes us along as, step by step, her country moves from the excitement and hope that accompanied The Great Leap Forward to the paranoia, zealotry and despair of the Cultural Revolution. Her family goes hungry, is split up, endures denunciation, but ultimately survives and moves forward. The kindness and loyalty that she encountered during these years brought tears to my eyes as I read.

The pace never falters in this gripping memoir. Not too demanding, the book includes some photographs and a helpful glossary (which would have been enhanced by pronunciations - my favorite axe to grind), and would be a spectacular class read, in addition to being a great leisure read.

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