Thursday, November 22, 2007

Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze

Cross-posted at The Newbery Project

A glance had shown a formality of language that did not bode well. Elizabeth Foreman Lewis's Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze would be the oldest of the Newbery Award books that I have read. I wondered if it weren't very dated, a World War and a Communist revolution having intervened, not to mention Korea, the Cold War, Vietnam, and wild Chinese economic growth.

I bought this discard from the Sara Hightower Library annual used book sale. I often buy Newberry books for my classroom library when I find them at the sale. This one was in great shape. It was a part of the Bookmobile collection. The Bookmobile, which I drove as part of a summer job about 22 years ago, has been gone now for several years. There are 15 stamps on the date slip in the back of the book. They begin with FEB 5 1977 and end with APR 26 1988. So I am, at the least, the 16th person who has intended to read this particular volume. My intentions date back a year or more. Always some other book seemed more inviting.

But two days ago I picked it up again.

The formality turns out to be part of the charm of this story of a formal society at a huge crossroads of history. Nationalist and communist forces are on the move as various warlords alternately ruled the Chungking area. The walled city of Chungking sees its wall breeched by a wide road and horseless busses. A blonde westerner is running a hospital outside the gates. Civil war has forced a third of the population into banditry. Old ways are giving way to new. In the midst of this chaos Young Fu and his recently widowed mother move into the big city from the farm.

The book is, on one level, an adventure that pits the young protagonist against poverty, crime, natural and man-made disaster, war, political unrest, communism, murder, drugs, and gambling. He is nearly killed by ruthless soldiers. He barely escapes a raging fire and a sudden giant flood. He foolishly falls among vicious beggars, thieves, and cheats and manages to survive all these challenges.

More importantly it is the story of Young Fu's growth, physically, intellectually, emotionally, and ethically, during the next five years. He is befriended by an old teacher in the apartment upstairs, by a fellow apprentice in the coppersmith's shop, by the blonde westerner, and, especially, by his wise and benevolent master, Tang. During his adventures and trials he is sorely tempted to capitulate to superstition, to desert his friends, to compromise his standards, and to prevaricate to his loved ones. All the same temptations that you and I face, less dramatically perhaps but just as surely, in our lives.

In the end, integrity, courage, intelligence, loyalty, and rationality win out. What could be more relevant to the current generation of late-elementary and middle schoolers. As I read I found myself regretting the times I have fallen short of those qualities and renewing my determination to do better. The tough wisdom and sacrificial loyalty of these characters sometimes even moved me to the point of a tightness in the throat or moist eyes.

I think the Newbery judges of 1933 made a good decision.

Wisdom from Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze

A scholar is a treasure under any rooftree.

One must first scale the mountain in order to view the plain.

He who rides on a tiger cannot dismount.

No task into which a man puts his heart is too bad.

The superior man finds pleasure in doing what is uncongenial.

If a man's affairs are to prosper, it is simply a matter of purpose.

It is better to remain ignorant than to know what is incorrect.

Knowest thou not that the treasure of knowledge is to be revered for itself alone? It has been given that men might learn how to live, not to win fortune. What is fortune without wisdom?

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