This August, Michele Ebersole and Yoo Kyung Sung give their takes on “Rethinking conceptual otherness in history: Exploring untold histories in the U.S. and global communities.” They begin the discussion with A Diamond in the Desert by Kathryn Fitzmaurice. This week they consider Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxua. In the coming weeks, they will discuss Gaijin: American Prisoner of War by Matt Faulkner and Lion Island: Cuba’s Warrior of Words by Margarita Engle.
MICHELE: This story takes place during a major sociopolitical movement and unrest in China, and I feel the tensions of the historical time through Sunflower’s father. The Cadre Schools and relationship between the village and city people also provide some historical context and explain how Sunflower and Bronze had different lived experiences within the same culture. When Sunflower is adopted by Bronze’s village family, I am particularly moved by the absolute love and pure adoration that everyone has for Sunflower. Despite living in poverty and almost starvation at times, she is well cared for in love by her adopted family. Her father, mother, grandmother, brother and Bronze take care of Sunflower at all costs, even sacrificing their own lives for her to be educated. This story depicts pureness and goodness through Sunflower and Bronze’s relationship. She represents a deep sense of hope for the family. With many of the stories that we have read for this month’s column, the characters experience extreme hardship and must overcome adverse situations and challenges. With this story, there are a number of traumatic events, such as the loss of Sunflower’s biological father and a village that gets ruined by a locust storm; however, I find the presence of Sunflower, her innocence and hope that she brought to the family and Bronze’s devotion and need to protect her at all costs heartwarming.
YOO KYUNG: The relationship between Bronze and Sunflower reminds me of Tetsu and Kimi or Horse and Kimi in A Diamond in the Desert. Kimi is a good-hearted girl who takes care of her (wild) animals, and Sunflower is a smart, loving girl. Even though Sunflower looks small and some of Bronze’s protection is necessary, this relationship is mutual in a sense that Sunflower is a reason why Bronze strives for his happy family. Kimi also appears to be a dependent baby sister, but Tetsu realizes how Kimi empowers him when he is a forever big brother to her. The story is beautifully translated into English. Helen Wong did a lovely job in her translation from Chinese to English. The poetically-beautiful English language creates the nuances of the story as a type of folktale instead of historical fiction, which is supposedly about the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Many young readers wouldn’t know the relevance of Cultural Revolution to the story until they read the author’s note. On the other hand, Bronze and Sunflower tells stories of city people and villagers without explicit political contexts. Today’s China suffers from extreme classism where the gap between super wealthy and the extreme poor grows wide. It causes serious social issues in poverty and family separations. People in the village show priceless value through sacrifice, wisdom, love, empathy, support, trust and hard-work ethics. Grandma is the total symbol of whole. The fact that Sunflower, who is from the poorest family, goes to school because of her (adopted) family’s support and love illustrates incredible hospitality.
When I learned Wenxuan won the Christian Anderson award, I expected more dynamics and drama in his book. His ways of telling stories remind me how Asian writing is different from Western styles of writing. At least, an aesthetic value on good writing could be culturally different. Bronze and Sunflower doesn’t jump into tension and crisis around Cultural Revolution soon (when readers are ready for it), but unpacks two families’ stories slowly with purposeful waiting time as if the readers should learn about two children as the author leads. I suggest classroom teachers read the book aloud like a small series book instead of assigning it as an individual reading assignment. The lengthy book has more to offer with its calm tone. The author’s note provides an interesting perspective about background information of the Cultural Revolution. Don’t intimidate young readers with its length.
Title: Bronze and Sunflower
Author: Cao Wenxua
Date Published: March 14, 2017
This is the second installment of August 2017’s My Take/Your Take. To follow the whole conversation, check the WOW Blog every Wednesday.