Review by Micah Killjoy
Published by Scholastic Focus, Scholastic, September 2019
208 Pages, paperback, $23.99 CAD, 978-1-33826-386-2
Ages 8-12, Grades 4-7
Middle Grade, Non-fiction
As the principal came down the steps toward Sisi, her heart rose again. He called out Sisi’s name and, taking her hand, led her up onto the stage. With her standing beside him, he declared that they had been making a grave mistake for a long time – the mistake to put the daughter of a disgraced landlord in a position of leadership.
He snatched the red band from Sisi’s trembling hands and ordered her to leave school and never to return again.
Sisi didn’t know what to do or think. The words struck her like unexpected thunderbolts. Her heart climbed up into her throat and hot tears trickled down her cheeks.
The principal roughly shoved Sisi off the stage. The crowd was utterly silent as Sisi stumbled off the stage and fell. Picking herself up, she slowly began to run along the muddy road, following the three fresh tracks left behind by the chief’s vehicle.
What would it be like to be eight-years-old during a massive societal upheaval? In Da Chen’s memoir for young readers, Girl Under a Red Moon, he tells the story of when China’s Cultural Revolution came to his home village, changing the lives of his family in surprising and horrifying ways.
Despite her best efforts to be a leader and a good revolutionary seed in her school, Da Chen and his older sister, the thirteen-year old Sisi, are still the children of a former landlord. Sisi is stripped of her ranking and expelled in front of her classmates. A neighbor urges her to walk to another village where she will be safe from the jeers and possible violence of her classmates and her mother agrees to send her off. While walking her out of town, Da and Sisi are attacked by classmates, causing Sisi to fear for Da’s safety as well. She makes a split decision and takes Da with her, and thus his trials under the Revolution in a new school and village begin.
While switching from Sisi to Da’s perspective can occasionally make the story feel removed, this book is lush with sensory descriptions of the Chinese countryside and the daily lives of Da and Sisi. The imagery is rich in sentences like, “Terraced fields turned golden with rice plants leaning low to the soil, heavy with the ripening pillow grain,” and “Each wet pearl [of dew] carried the whole earth within its full liquid moon and lay shimmering on a blade of grass.” This is a lyrical and intimate picture of the world Da and Sisi inhabited, which allows the reader to peer directly into the physical world of 1960’s rural China.
However, alongside these idyllic moments come terrifying descriptions of cruelty in the name of the Revolution, from both children and adults. “They stomped their feet on the man’s back and neck and white-haired skull, then grabbed a fist of his hair and pulled him up,” is actually one of the tamer images in the scene where we witness the public beating of a kindly school principal. In addition, many of these moments are punctuated with the language of the revolution, words like “bourgeoise,” “feudal revisionism,” and “counterrevolutionary” are sprinkled through the more intense scenes, but the author offers little explanation of these words. The only historical context given is in a short prologue and paragraph-long appendix. The younger reading level contrasts sharply with the graphic violence and the story gives little explanation for the behaviors of the antagonists. As such, while this story gives an important perspective for students looking to learn more about China’s recent history, it might be better suited to an older middle-grade, and possibly best with an adult to help research and answer questions as they arise. Young readers might also consider waiting to experience Chen’s memoirs for older audiences: Colors of the Mountain and Sounds of the River.
Micah Killjoy is a Creative Writing BFA student at UBC. They like reading and writing about history and daydreaming about decolonization, bad poetry and having manageable hair.