Ming survived the famine that killed his parents during China’s ‘Great Leap Forward’, and lives a hard but adequate life, working in the fields… When a group of city boys comes to the village as part of a Communist Party re-education program, Ming and his friends aren’t sure what to make of the new arrivals. They’re not used to hard labour and village life. But despite his reservations, Ming befriends a charming city boy called Li. The two couldn’t be more different, but slowly they form a bond over evening swims and shared dreams…But as the bitterness of life under the Party begins to take its toll on both boys, they begin to imagine the impossible: freedom.
Note: review will discuss themes that may be distressing; tw’s for death and poverty
Before I delve into my high praises for this book, I want you to go into this book review knowing one thing: Freedom Swimmer by Wai Chim was based on the author’s father’s life. I didn’t know this when I read Freedom Swimmer; I only knew when I read the very end. So, knowing this, let me tell you how much I love Freedom Swimmer, and why you and everyone should read one of my top reads of 2017.
If you want to talk about memorable beginnings, let’s talk about Freedom Swimmer. The prologue of this book is set during the time of the Great Leap Forward, and, later on, is set during the Cultural Revolution. Freedom Swimmer sets a somber tone within the first page by centering its perspective on a young and poor boy by the name of Ming, who is recently orphaned following the death of his mother. Though heartbreaking and horrible, this was the reality of many poor Chinese people during the Great Leap Forward; it was a horrific time that resulted in millions upon millions of deaths. However, a singular but significant gesture of kindness and compassion will change the lives of Ming and two others – forever.
The food was delicious; it had been months since I’d had any meat. I wondered whether the city boys ate like this every day and felt a pang of jealousy as I remembered Fei’s tiny sweet potatoes.
Freedom Swimmer was a difficult book to read at times, but it is such an important and engaging story. It is told from the perspective of Ming, now a teenager and working on the fields, and Li, a Red Guard stationed in Ming’s village. The pair strike an unlikely and unexpected friendship, especially when Ming begins to teach Li, a city boy through and through, how to swim. Though this book was short, the characters were brilliantly written and realized – I enjoyed seeing the nuances of their characterization, and also seeing the throes of boyhood and youth. Importantly, I connected to the characters seamlessly; despite their flaws, I found them instantly likable and their perspectives compelling.
What was most compelling, however, was the story’s underlying themes. Through the eyes of Ming and Li, we see a perspective of the impact and trauma of the Great Leap Forward – how it catapulted the poorest parts of China to famine and poverty, where many lost their lives. It speaks of the coercion and terror imposed by the authoritarian regime and the authorities who perpetuated it, and how dishonor had a powerful ripple effect that destroyed families, lives, and futures. Indeed, Chim’s fantastic storytelling transports us to a time where life was not only difficult but politically and ideologically dangerous. One of the most harrowing and heartbreaking scenes of the book was of an old villager who is plagued by the death of his children and the hopelessness he felt. I read this book and thought, yes, it’s fiction, but this was a fact of so many people’s lives, of their pain and hardship, as such that no word could ever give justice to what they had to face and endure. It is sobering scene; one that makes you reflect on the privileges of your life and how you take so much for granted.
We were one and the same. And I recalled the quote from my father. It doesn’t matter where they’re from, all desperate men are the same.
Freedom Swimmer tackles hard-hitting subjects, but it is the friendship between Ming and Li that buoys this book and raises it to be the fantastic book that it is. There is something so poignant and wondrous about finding a light, in companionship, and unbreakable trust in a time where such things were fragile. In each other, they find the daring to dream, they find bravery, and they find the courage to hope, and with those things, they set off to swim from the shore of China all the way to Hong Kong – their promised land of freedom. What takes place in the freedom swim to Hong Kong left me crying my eyes out – and I’ll leave it to you to pick this book up to find out what happened.
And so, when I think about how this is a true story, and how so many Chinese individuals risked their lives for the chance of freedom, with some failing and some succeeding, it truly amazes me and I’m left speechless. Freedom Swimmer is a story that might not have existed, but, against all odds and because of bravery, dreaming, and hope, it does. Listen: Freedom Swimmer is such a fantastic book; it is the kind that absolutely needs to be read and shared with others because it contains such an invisible and priceless piece of history. Thank you, Wai, for writing this book and for sharing your father’s story with all of us. I’ll carry his story and Freedom Swimmer with me forever.
Rating: 4.5 /5
Is this book for you?
Premise in a sentence: Set in the Cultural Revolution, two teenagers become friends and begin to dream of freedom.
Perfect for: Readers who love historical fiction and want to learn more about China’s history during the 1960’s.
Genre: Young adult, historical fiction
Recommended? Absolutely, but be prepared for some heavy themes.
Trigger/content warnings: death of parent, torture, physical violence
- Have you read Freedom Swimmer? What did you think of it?
- Do you know much of China’s history, particularly around the times of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution? (I didn’t myself, not really. I learned in my first year Asian studies class, but I felt like this book was a better teacher than the textbooks.)
- What are some truly brave acts, particularly by everyday citizens, in history that you know of?