Laurinda’s Rating: 2.5/5
Country boy travels to city to apprentice with a coppersmith, makes many foolish errors along the way, gets out of trouble mostly through luck and sometimes through wit, and learns appropriate lessons encapsulated in traditional Chinese sayings. The end.
Ok. It’s not really that simple (or that bad). Elizabeth Foreman Lewis, author of the 1933 Newbery Medal Winner, tells a reasonably interesting story of how a boy, driven by the death of his father, moves into the city to apprentice with a coppersmith. Young Fu is mocked repeatedly for his country ways, but falls into remarkable luck. He desperately wants to become literate, so he enlists his upstairs neighbour, an aged scholar, to teach him. Disobeying his mother, Young Fu helps a foreign lady put out a fire on the roof of a hospital. Rather than bringing ill luck, the lady gives Young Fu money, brings her business to his master, Tang, and helps cure Fu’s good friend Li when he develops appendicitis. Young Fu develops a strong relationship with his master and the book ends with Tang’s promise to adopt Young Fu as his son and heir to the business.
Where Lewis really shines is in building the context of 1920’s Chunking, China. Many of Young Fu’s problems are directly related to the instability of the city and to the fact that it changed hands repeatedly during that period. His father had died trying to making a living off fields repeatedly trampled by soldiers. He almost dies when he witness the murder of a coolie by a band of soldiers; luckily, one of the soldiers has some compassion and distracts his murderous comrade so that Young Fu can escape. On a trip outside the city, Tang and Young Fu nearly lose all their profits to bandits, although Young Fu’s quick thinking saves the day. Lewis also highlights other societal tensions, including north/south animosities, with southern (Communist) agitators depicted quite unfavourably; their philosophy is depicted merely as an excuse for settling personal scores. She writes, too, of the extremely negative attitude towards “foreign devils”, particularly the looting of foreign compounds and eventual expulsion of foreigners from the city. Although Young Fu has positive interactions with them, the general attitude is negative, with foreigners driving the opium trade and other ills.
While I wouldn’t particularly recommend it, this book wasn’t terrible. There is some character growth and develop, primarily in Young Fu and in Tang. Secondary characters are primarily static props and poorly developed. The setting is of greatest interest. I had to fight to remind myself that it was set in the 1920’s, as living conditions and attitudes to technology developed more slowly in Chungking than in the United States. The stories are moralising, and I occasionally want to bang my head (or, better, Young Fu’s) against a wall when he got himself into yet another stupid scrape. ‘Cause, you know, early glowing watches are totally worth getting into massive debt over. Yup. Unless you’re really interested in China, probably give this one a pass, though it is more readable than some.