Bette Bao Lord

Three unlikely friends forge a bond of loyalty and duty to country that they will remember all their lives in this poignant story of love, hate, betrayal, loss, and redemption. These are universal themes played out on the immense stage of China in the 20th century.

“Then as Mountain Pine and Firecrackers looked on, Steel Hope painstakingly carved a giant ideogram on the blackened wall—the character for loyalty. When it was finished, he slashed a horizontal line through the center of it. To Firecrackers, who couldn’t read, he explained that now there were not one but two words. Together they meant “center”. But the top alone was the word “middle” as in the Middle Kingdom, the hub of civilization, China; and the bottom alone was “heart”, as in the truest and bravest of all hearts, the heart of the Chinese patriot.”

Steel Hope is the second son of a proud and once noble family. Mountain Pine is his “bookmate”, the tutor who oversees his studies. Firecrackers is the son (maybe) of the family gravedigger. This resourceful child is left orphaned and fending for himself when he has a chance meeting with the other two, a meeting that will change all of their lives forever.

Even as children their lives have very different points of focus. Steel Hope’s attentions are riveted on the hated Japanese who occupy his homeland. Mountain Pine is mainly interested in his books and the poetry that he loves to write. Firecrackers is focused on survival. As the years go by they have very different parts to play in the rise of Communism and the Cultural Revolution. The author, Bette Bao Lord, does an excellent job of letting the reader experience the fierce loyalties, the intense competition for place, the backstabbing, and the cringing fear that characterized that era. One could never know where one stood in that system. He or she could be a respected leader one day and a “treacherous dog” the next. But the fear wasn’t all. How heartbreaking it was to many to see so much beauty destroyed, so much learning erased. How devastating to have friends, parents, family taken away never to be heard from again.

This is a gripping story. The characters are at times likable and at other times hateful, vengeful, and cowardly. However, it is not hard to see how they are driven to those extremes. There are moments of joy and moments of grief and desperation as these three friends along with countless others find ways to survive amidst the destruction that surrounds them. The conflicting ideals and loyalties make for exciting reading in this well-told tale.

(For an excellent and unforgettable non-fiction account of this same period, read Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang. It is a powerful and unsettling story of three generations of Chinese women who lived through the storm that was 20th century China.)