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A Hundred Flowers, by Gail Tsukiyama, is a nicely crafted historical novel about China during the late 1950s.  In May, 1956, Mao Zedong invited criticism of the Chinese Communist Party's policies, quoting from Chinese classical history.  "Let a hundred flowers bloom, and a hundred schools of thought contend." Intellectuals and others opposing China's policies waited until the spring of 1957 to voice any criticism. Although it was initially encouraged, retribution followed by early July of that year. Opponents of the regime lost their jobs and many were sent  to "re-education camps. There they were subjected to back-breaking manual labor. ("Hundred Flowers Campaign." Encyclopedia Britannica Online Library Edition. 2012.)

It is 1957 when the book opens.  Sheng, beloved husband and father, has been arrested for writing a letter critical of the Communist Party.  His wife, the herbalist Kai Ying, worries about making ends meet.  Her father-in-law, a retired art professor, lives with a wrenching secret.  Tao, Sheng's son, witnesses his father's arrest and deals with his grief silently.  His silence turns into anger, and a year later, Tao climbs a giant kapok tree and falls 30 feet.  Everyone's feelings for this magnificent tree are described so vividly that the tree itself becomes yet another compelling character.


As they stood next to each other, Kai Ying was glad she couldn't see her father-in-law's face.  She wanted the old Wei back, the man who commanded respect just by walking into a classroom, the man who had sat by the side of his dying wife day after day reading to her, the man who spent hours talking and laughing with his grandson. Instead, she felt only the looming presence of the kapok tree rising above, and the sense that they, too, had fallen. pp. 37-38.

Tsukiyama
has once again written a compelling story about family bonds and enduring love. Her rich, descriptive prose captures the essence of this turbulent historical period.

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