Bronze and Sunflower, a 400-page novel aimed at 10 to 13-year-olds, takes us back 40 years to a poor Chinese village during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. Sunflower has arrived with her artist father and other educated townsfolk, at the May 7 Cadre School (in reality, a labour camp) where they will clear the land, build houses and run a fish farm.
The lonely seven-year-old eventually makes friends with a mute boy called Bronze from the nearby village. Then disaster strikes: her father drowns and Sunflower is left an orphan. The village authorities offer her up for adoption; in a vividly-described episode, Sunflower sits under a village tree all day, waiting … and waiting. Eventually, to her relief, Bronze’s family take her in.
The years pass and Sunflower does well in the village school while, in their free time, the two children share hardships and adventures both in the village and further afield. Then Bronze’s beloved grandmother falls ill, and the family are too poor to pay for a doctor. So Sunflower deliberately flunks her exams and goes foraging for gingko seeds to sell. To the children’s great distress, the grandmother dies anyway. Then the end of the Cultural Revolution brings a more dramatic change to their lives. The Cadre School inmates are allowed to go home to the city and Sunflower’s remaining relatives demand her return too. The children have no say, and Bronze, in particular, is distraught, though the painful parting does shock him into regaining his voice.
This is a charming story of a friendship between two children drawn together by their isolation from the community, and the complexities of the world outside do not really intrude. Adult readers – and this book is, I should stress, a delightful read – may suspect village life is being viewed through rose-tinted spectacles.
In the adoption scene, no one steps forward initially, because: “Most of the villagers already had children. The women were healthy and strong – they had fresh air and sunshine, fresh fish from the river, and fresh rice from the paddy fields – and had no trouble getting pregnant.” There is little about what it feels like to grow up dirt poor and hungry. The villagers’ nonplussed reaction to the educated newcomers in the May 7 Cadre School, who have “their own language, their own activities, and their own ways of doing things” is, however, amusing and perceptive.
Much of the children’s literature published in China would be considered too Enid Blyton or unfamiliar for western readers. But in Bronze and Sunflower, the children’s adventures keep the story moving nicely and this is an excellent, sometimes lyrical translation. The story successfully crosses the cultural divide and young readers will find it engrossing.