By Lisa See, who also wrote (among other things) “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan”. Dreams of Joy takes place in China during the “Great Leap Forward”, and from what I’ve read subsequently, it accurately depicts the conditions in China during that period.
It’s hard to know where to begin. Essentially it tells the story of the Great Leap Forward through the eyes of one family. Nineteen year-old Joy lives in Los Angeles with her mother and her aunt, and their husbands. Personally traumatized by the suicide of her father, and idealistically radicalized by her time at the University of Chicago, she decides to move to China, to help build the New China. From the moment she jumps into action, nothing goes as planned or expected.
While accompanying her real father (this is a long story) on a trip to Green Dragon village in the countryside, she falls in love with, and marries a peasant named Tao. She has a baby she names Samantha, although her husband cynically says he and his family will call the baby Ah-Fu, meaning “Good Fortune”. This is actually a cruel joke, since all girl babies are considered misfortunes.
To condense quite a bit, things begin to deteriorate in the countryside. First they’re forced into small communal associations (private property had been outlawed, though for a time, families were still allowed to care for what once had been their property). Eventually they are forced into ever larger communes, and Green Dragon becomes a member of a commune with 4,000 members.
Mao was an ignorant, egotistical, and competitive guy. At first, his model was the Soviet Union, but then he decided China, with its greater population, could do it better and faster. His goals were to produce more crops and more steel than any other country in the world. He introduced methods to accomplish this that had no basis in reality. For instance, he introduced “close planting”, the planting of seed crops far closer than was sustainable. He required ordinary people to begin bringing all their metal to the steel furnaces. They brought such things as cooking utensils.
The end result was predictable. Crops were failing, and they no longer had implements or pots to cook in, even if there had been food available. The peasants, whom Mao had so glorified, began to starve. He’d been right about one thing: the peasants were the backbone of the country, and he was killing them off. Internal travel became severely restricted. He didn’t want starving peasants to show up in the cities, and he didn’t want people from the cities traveling to the country where they could see people starving.
Eventually there was a country-wide famine. Some estimates place the number of dead at 32 million.
In the book, Joy and her husband and his family are starving too. Joy leaves Samantha in the care of her husband’s sister while she goes to visit the commune leader. When she returns, her mother-in-law is outside their hut, boiling water. She goes inside and finds a baby on the table…who is not Samantha. This is when she learns of a practice called Swap Child, Make Food. Mothers switch their infants, who are dying of malnutrition. When they die, they eat them. The Swap Child, Make Food practice meant you didn’t have to eat your own child.
This sounds like make-believe, but it isn’t. I found it the most horrifying situation in the book, but there are many others. It isn’t surprising what starvation will do to morality. It’s also a cautionary tale about running a country on slogans.
In case this makes you not want to read the book, let me say, it has a happy ending, but it’s quite perilous and you never know whether all the characters you’ve grown to care about will survive. I may have ruined the ending for you, but it’s still worth reading as a picture of China at that time. And I can’t help but add, yes, Samantha survives.