Two Chinese girls meet in elementary school during China's Cultural Revolution. Their initial joining of hands is less a matter of childhood friendship than a drawing together of two young people who face similar persecution. Both are outcasts during the reign of an abusive regime, one that tolerates little diversity. Mao Zedong sits on the throne of this world, and from his perch terror and intolerance spill down into the lowest ranks of his troops.
Author Anchee Min, like the two women portrayed in this, her fourth book, grew up during China's Cultural Revolution and was once a cog in Mao's massive Communist machine. Not until the 1980s, when she came to America, was she able to address her past, at first in the form of her best-selling memoir Red Azalea. Now in her mid-40s, living in sunny California, Min figuratively returns home in Wild Ginger for an unsettling examination of the China that defined her youth.
Wild Ginger and Maple, the narrator of the novel, yearn to be upstanding citizens, proper young Maoists, but each is disabled by her family. Maple's parents are as poor as the proletariat throngs so celebrated during this period, but they are teachers and are therefore contaminated. Wild Ginger comes from even more reactionary stock. While her mother is Chinese, her long-deceased father was part-French, a fact that shows through Wild Ginger's "foreign-colored eyes."While the two girls delight in having found one other, they respond differently to the strictures of the system as they grow older: ideals harden in one woman and shatter in the other. The tension between the two is a subtle means by which Min underlines the tensions inherent in Mao's China. Each girl becomes symbolic of a mode of reacting to an oppressive government. Min's skill lies in the fact that each remains a convincing and compelling character. Employing the personal to profess the political, Min has created another engaging fiction that simultaneously serves as powerful commentary on her complex relationship with her native country. Susanna Baird is a writer living in Brookline, Massachusetts.