“Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend.” The motto of the Hundred Flowers Campaign, set in motion by Chairman Mao Zedong in 1956, expresses a beautiful sentiment meant to encourage ideas and opinions, progress and growth. It is that encouragement and the utter failure of the movement that underlines and sets the backdrop for the award winning and bestselling author, Gail Tsukiyama’s, lastest novel, A Hundred Flowers. Tsukiyama shares the story of a family struggling in the wake of Sheng’s (a father, a son, and a husband) abduction by the Communist Party of China for the writing of a letter criticizing the government.
A year later, communication has ceased between Sheng and his family, and they don’t understand why, or how life can go on with out him. Sheng’s son, Tao, is afraid to ask his mother, Kai Ying, what his father did or where he’s gone, but the void he feels compels him to climb the large kapok tree growing in their courtyard for a glimpse at White Cloud Mountain, a sight he had enjoyed searching for with his father. When he falls, life takes another drastic turn for the small family.
The family must take comfort in each other and continue to hope for Sheng’s possible return, while also wondering if he ever will or if he’s even still alive. The secrets that lie between them push them apart and draw them together. To reveal the truth and set things straight, Sheng’s father sets off on an adventure that takes him to the edge of his resources and introduces a new friend and a new hope for his family. The cast of characters is brimming with realistic examples of strength, compassion, and hopefulness, but they all experience the lows of life as well: the losses, the fears, or the occasions when life doesn’t feel worth living. By exploring the path that brought them all together, the family sees that they are bound to each other in a support system that promises that the future will be, if not brighter, at least existent; they will survive.
This brilliant portrayal of a family torn half apart and mending like the kapok tree that Tao falls from is brought to life by the familiar voice of Simon Vance (The Third Reich by Roberto Bolano, reviewed in Vol.4 No. 27). I was happy and not surprised to discover that Vance won the 2012 Audie Award for Best Male Narrator, and he doesn’t disappoint in A Hundred Flowers. He brings Sheng’s family to life with his warm and inviting voice. Tsukiyama’s story and Vance’s voice make for a delightful journey into the early years of Communist China, when the promise of a better China never seemed so bleak.