Gloria Whelan—winner of the National Book Award, poet and author of numerous books for children and young adults—has with Chu Ju's House created an engrossing, well-researched novel that is educational and poetic, emotional and suspenseful.
Chu Ju is a 14-year-old girl who lives in rural China with her mother and grandparents. Chu Ju's grandmother exerts a negative force on the household and its inhabitants, as does the government, which restricts the number of children each family may have. And so, when another "unremarkable girl baby" is born to Chu Ju's mother and her grandmother tries to sell the baby so the family might try again to have a boy Chu Ju decides to leave home so that her baby sister might stay.
Whelan uses rich language to convey the beauty of modern-day China, its fields and villages, rice paddies and rivers. She also paints a distressing picture of the realities of the orphanages filled with unwanted girls, and the poverty of many of China's citizens. During her travels, Chu Ju earns her keep by working on a fishing boat and a silkworm farm. Whelan's description of the silk worms their feeding cycle, the great concert of the worms' chewing sounds is particularly fascinating.
Along the way, Chu Ju yearns for her family but knows she must keep moving to remain safe and undetected. She encounters many kind strangers and eventually befriends an elderly woman named Han Na whose son has moved to Shanghai. While helping Han Na with farm work, Chu Ju learns more about the ways in which the Chinese government seeks to tamp down the knowledge of citizens, to silence their questions.
The conflict between the law and the desires of the populace mirrors Chu Ju's own internal struggle, her rebellious nature and her wish to have things the way they used to be. The story's resolution is just as powerful and true as the pages leading up to it; readers will surely close the book feeling they have learned something about China past and present, and the universal desire to define and discover a place called home.