Wai Chim, Freedom Swimmer, Allen & Unwin, Sept 2016, 272pp., $16.99 (pbk), ISBN: 9781760113414
Freedom Swimmer is the story of a friendship between city boy and exemplary Communist Party youth, Li, and the village pariah, Ming. Ming’s father was shot for attempting to swim to Hong Kong and he lost the rest of his family in the famine of the Three Years of Natural Disasters and Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward. Life has become an unquestioning routine of hard work in the fields, short food rations, and little else, until a group of city boys, former Red Guards, are brought to the village to learn the simple ways of the peasants as a part of Mao’s propaganda program. Slowly, Ming and Li become friends, learn from each other, and both begin to question the way of life under Mao’s regime in a world where such questions are dangerous.
Ming’s courtship of Fei, encouraged by Li, leads him to think and articulate more, and to visualise an actual future which is denied him. Li’s world is brought down when his father is arrested for sedition. Li is faced with the impossible choice of either becoming an outcast and traitor himself, or of denouncing his own father.
The short, sharp brutality of the consequences for not being the perfect Comrade makes it very clear what the stakes are for both Ming and Li when they are finally pushed to chance the swim to freedom. If they stay, they face isolation, starvation and daily beatings at best, and execution for treason at worst. Or they can attempt the grueling swim to the rumoured freedom of Hong Kong, risking sharks, patrol boats and death if caught.
Another thread that runs through Ming and Li’s story is that of fear, and learning that the things we fear are like “paper tigers”. They both have to learn to let go of the ghosts of the past.
Throughout the book, the dismantling of education under Mao’s regime comes up several times, and the disastrous effects of this are repeated and enlarged upon in many ways. People are being robbed of, or are resigning, their ability to think, and are being brutally punished for questioning the wisdom of the Party, which makes the way the Red Book is used in the story particularly interesting. Fei’s comment, on studying the Red Book, was that Chairman Mao is a very observant man. Throughout Freedom Swimmer, quotes from Mao’s book are used, and it is interesting how much wisdom the central characters often draw from these quotes when they think deeper and question what is being said. These quotes, however, become dangerous at the times when they are repeated with unthinking obedience, or used as a meaningless mantra.
While I felt that the conclusion of the book, after Ming and Li make their attempt to swim for freedom, glossed over subsequent events and robbed the consequences of a little of their weight, the power of this book lies in the steady building of tension leading to their decision.
Freedom Swimmer is a thought-provoking book for readers aged 12 and up, and would find a good place in a discussion of both the historical events of Mao Zedong’s China, and communist ideology, and in drawing parallels with current events around the world. There have been many places and times in human history when people facing violence, oppression and conflict have fled their own country seeking a better life, or, indeed, any kind of life, for themselves and their families. Here and now is one such time and place. I think it speaks to our humanity to try and imagine ourselves in this position – to try and understand what it would take to force us to risk our own lives, and the lives of those we care about in search of an uncertain future. Books like Freedom Swimmer are a good start.
Reviewed by Emily Clarke