The twelfth winner of the Newbery was, surprise surprise, set in a country that is not America! It was Young Fu Of the Upper Yangtze, by Elizabeth Foreman Lewis.
It tells of the coming of age of the titular Fu, a fourteen-year-old boy from the countryside who in the 1920s arrives in the vast city of Chungking (modern Chongqing) with his widowed mother. Apprenticed to Tang, a consummate coppersmith, Fu learns to temper his naïve curiosity, swallow his fears, face the bizarre novelty of foreign devils and gasoline-powered cars, and master his pride. Episode by episode, Fu grows wiser from his mistakes, and is a very likeable, sympathetic hero who risks his life for others on two occasions.
This is an exciting and engaging young adult novel. Like many books of this era, it reflects an era of more exacting learning in schools. Some of the vocabulary is rather abstruse – badinage, enmity, stinting, auspicious, for just a few random examples – and the writing is sometimes tortuous ("Not one man in all China but would make the journey"). But it’s rewarding, and a book-loving kid could easily get plunged into this almost alien world that was once very real. The most interesting thing about the book, indeed, is seeing the differences and similarities between Fu’s world and thought and those of us today. There are eternal truths about humans, and Fu shows bravery and kindness and pride and stupidity, all of which readers can relate to. But then there's the traditional Chinese way of life, with its reverence for age and unquestioning obedience of mothers, fear of evil and mischievous spirits, fatalistic resignation to oppression, foot-binding, coolies, poverty, opium, sedan chairs, draconian punishments, and so on. At a few decades past the turn of the century, many Chinese still lived the way their ancestors did thousands of years previously, and knew just as little about the outside world. Fu, for example, cannot imagine the ocean across which the foreigners live, assuming it must be smaller than the mighty Yangtze. (Actually, judging from some of the travel literature about China I’ve read, such as the superb Iron & Silk, some Chinese in the countryside even ten years ago knew very little about geography, space, and other fields irrelevant to their lives.) Lewis’ wonderfully written book (her first!) is a terrific window for young adults into history and the study of other cultures.
Recommended for children: Yes, for older children, who have a love of reading and fearlessness about new vocabulary and concepts.
Recommended for adults: Yes! Everyone should delve into other cultures, and this is a well-written story.