This is the personal story of Emily Wu Yimao’s gruelling and often horrifying childhood under Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution during the 1960s and ‘70’s. Collaborating with Larry Engelmann, a professor of history who has lived in Hong Kong and co-authored the memoir Daughter of China, Wu delivers a revealing and gritty account of the loss of innocence and hope during her formative years. Feather in the Storm is powerful in its simplistic language and written in a way that does not whitewash events. Told through the purity of a youngster’s eye, Wu observes abuse, brutality and death – whether by murder or suicide - with a kind of detachment that only a child’s sensibility could describe.
The book begins in 1961 with her earliest memory: she is at a concentration camp meeting her father for the very first time. It is her third birthday. Establishing this memory at the outset is important as it provides the reason why Wu experienced the bitter end of life during Mao’s dictatorial reign. Her father, an academic intellectual, a breed that is seen as bourgeois and therefore anti-revolutionary, is accused of being a ‘rightist’ and ‘class enemy.’ What this means for Wu and her siblings, who are now referred to as ‘bad seeds’ from a ‘black’ family, is the tale that unfolds.
Bullied and tormented by the offspring of ‘red’ families – those of Party members and other officials - Wu and her family are subjected to humiliation and contempt by her father’s own students, who have transformed overnight into Red Guards. There is also the ever-present threat of famine, separation and destability. When her parents are forced to live and work in the countryside to ‘learn from the peasants,’ Wu is left to look after her twelve and five-year-old brothers, being herself only ten years of age. Her childhood is over, if it ever began at all.
After recovering from life-threatening illnesses and maturing into adolescence, Wu and her family are once again reunited in Gao Village, where probably the most interesting character evolves - Old Crab. A totalitarian figure, he represents all the hypocrisy of the communist state. “He decided who received food and who did not. He determined whose children lived or died,” writes Wu. Over the five years of her stay, she witnesses such things as the death of a friend owing to starvation, female exploitation, and most chilling of all, the senseless killing of her friend’s twin newborn girls. The favoritism of the male sex in the Chinese psyche and indeed other world cultures proves to have a devastating consequence for females. Even Wu can’t but help express the injustice experienced at home, where her brothers are given better morsels of food.
Throat-choking in places and heart-wrenching throughout, this personal narrative is vivid and compelling. Borrowing much from the novel form, chapters are short and end in cliffhangers, making this a page-turning read. The ending is perhaps the most riveting. As a 17-year-old high-school graduate, Wu is sent to an isolated commune in the mountains, living solely to work – among poisonous snakes, no less. After being consigned as a ‘bad element’ by her sleazy Team Leader, she is again transferred. This time she is sent deeper into remoteness and loneliness, where at a cliff’s edge she contemplates suicide but is stopped just in time by another student whose fate is much worse than Wu’s. A film by Chris Billing, Up to the Mountains, Down to the Village (2005) shows Emily Wu revisiting her assigned village, where she recounts the hardships of peasant life as well as the untold despair that was inflicted.
Feather in the Storm is indeed full of tragedy and man’s inhumanity, but there are moments of fleeting joy and happiness found in temporary friendships and acts of momentary kindness. What makes you remain loyal to this story is Wu’s youthful optimism for her future despite the outlook of hopelessness. The thought that ‘this will end soon’ keeps her going. You can’t help but feel that you are following this journey with her, trekking up the mountains, laughing and reciting poetry with her comrades and eating her daily diet of rice.
The last tear-jerking chapter leaves you wondering where Emily Yimao Wu is now and whether she is happy. Unlike many other young people whose childhoods were lost in Mao’s social experiment, Wu, like her brothers, became one of the lucky ones who survived this holocaust.
Feather in the Storm is an insightful and deeply affecting testimony of dark times that gives you a history lesson on the way, brilliant and truly absorbing.