By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
“Starry River of the Sky”
By Grace Lin
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2012
The moon has gone missing, but the only person in the remote Village of Clear Sky who has seemed to notice is its newest resident, a young boy named Rendi.
A runaway who now finds himself working as a chore boy at the village inn, Rendi initially scorns the duties he has been tasked with and carries them out reluctantly. He also finds the goings-on at the inn peculiar — from the innkeeper Master Chao’s ongoing feud with Widow Yan to Mr. Shan often mistaking his pet toad for a rabbit. There’s also Master Chao’s son, who has left the village for parts unknown.
Then one day, a mysterious woman arrives at the inn with a gift for storytelling. As she shares her stories with Rendi and everyone else at the inn, people and things in the village begin to change. Rendi begins to realize that maybe his own story holds the solution to the village’s problems.
“Starry River” is a companion novel to Grace Lin’s “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” and brings readers back into a world of fantasy and Chinese folklore.
Despite the whimsical nature of the story — in which moons can go missing and there is more to animals than meets the eye — this is a tale with themes based in reality. Whether it’s a young boy wanting nothing more than to be with his family to a father seemingly knowing what’s best for his children, these are issues readers will be able to relate to.
The growth Rendi experiences throughout the story teaches readers the importance of looking outside of ourselves to realize that there is a whole world out there. And what we may perceive as a big problem initially may not seem as dire in the whole scheme of things.
In addition to the fantastical story, “Starry River” also features full-color illustrations by Lin that will transport readers into her world.
“Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War”
By Raghu Karnad
W.W. Norton & Company, 2015
When thinking of World War II and those involved, the main players usually mentioned are various European countries, including Germany and Great Britain, Japan, and the United States. Rarely do people mention India.
But India was involved. The colonial forces in India fought for the British Empire at the same time their fellow countrymen fought to be freed from the Crown’s rule.
“Farthest Field” tells the story of four young Indian men and their time before and during the Second World War. The story focuses primarily on Bobby Mugaseth, Karnad’s great uncle, who follows his brothers-in-law into the Indian military.
Karnad’s family’s story in the war begins with the photographs of three young men in his grandmother’s home. They had been there as long as he could remember. It took Karnad decades to realize that he actually looked a bit like one of the men in the photos: Bobby. Like many people would be, Karnad was surprised to learn that the three men — alongside other Indian soldiers — had fought in the war.
While “Farthest Field” is a war story and the characters are part of a much bigger battle than the ones they personally fought, it is also a story of family, love, and loyalty.
With all that has been written about World War II, I was very surprised to learn that India was even involved. It was never something I learned in school or had read about prior to this book. As Karnad shares his family’s story, he also shows the importance and need for diverse stories in which points of views are highlighted.
By reading stories about people from all backgrounds and walks of life, readers who share the same identities with the people in these stories will feel represented. It also gives readers a fuller picture of where we all fit in the world and show the value in people who are different from us.
“The Boat Rocker”
By Ha Jin
Pantheon Books, 2016
It’s New York, in 2005, and Feng Danlin, a Chinese expat, is working at a small news agency that produces a website that is read by Chinese people worldwide.
Over the years, his pieces uncovering corruption and hypocrisy have attracted readers, as well as Communist officials.
Then his editor assigns him a story that may be too good to be true: investigating his ex-wife, Yan Haili, and her claims that her debut novel is destined to be the next big thing — from gaining the approval of then President George W. Bush, to her receiving a $1.3 million movie deal. Danlin, who is familiar with his ex’s writing as well as her ambitions, knows better and eagerly jumps at the assignment.
Turns out, it was too good to be true, and Danlin soon finds himself on the receiving end of a seemingly never-ending harassment from people in power. We see how much Haili wants to make it as she has gotten into bed with the Chinese government. While some of the situations may come off as over the top and ridiculous, they are also entertaining and a part of you will wonder if they’re so out there that they must be true.
“Boat Rocker” is a fast-paced story whose plot begins moving at page one. While Jin describes some of the mechanics of how the Chinese government works, he doesn’t go into deep detail to slow down the plot. Readers will keep turning the page to see what other obstacles will be thrown into Danlin’s path and how he will manage to overcome them.
This is also a story about freedom — namely, free speech. The Chinese government officials’ efforts to censor and silence Danlin will have readers wondering how much it will take and how far they can be pushed before they give up their right to speak freely.
Samantha Pak can be reached at email@example.com.