Wai Chim’s novel, Freedom Swimmer may be a work of fiction but it’s based on an amazing true story. It tells the tale of two unlikely friends who embark on a treacherous swim from mainland China to Hong Kong in order to escape the oppression of living under the communist rule of Chairman Mao Zedong. The story is ultimately an incredible and inspiring one that will get us thinking and talking about an important chapter in history (and unfortunately one where millions of people died.)
The book is Chim’s first foray into the world of young adult literature but it isn’t her first story to be set in China. Chim has successfully written The Chook Chook series for younger readers. In Freedom Swimmer she writes a first-person narrative where the perspective shifts between the shy, orphaned peasant boy Ming and the suave and educated city boy, Li. The book opens with some tragedy for Ming- his mother has died from starvation and this has left him an orphan. He is all alone but he does receive some kindness and compassion from a local village girl named Fei.
In 1968 the boys from the village are left to work hard in the fields and survive on a meagre diet of rations. Eventually they are joined by a group of young upstarts from the city that includes Li. This new group are teenage members of Mao’s red guards and they have come to the countryside to help spread the word for the Communist Party’s re-education program. At first the differences between the two groups are stark but over time Ming and Li bond over their harsh circumstances. The pair eventually decide that they need to escape and that they should undertake a difficult swim through shark-infested waters and oceans that are patrolled by cruel guards. What happens next is in their destiny.
Freedom Swimmer shares a few things in common with Alice Pung’s Her Father’s Daughter and Micheline Lee’s The Healing Party. In the case of the former, both authors draw inspiration from their father’s harsh childhoods in order to make us stop, re-think and count our blessings. In the case of the latter, both novels deal with poignant and meaningful topics but also manage to tell their stories through light and easy language.
In Freedom Swimmer Wai Chim manages to negotiate a potential minefield and handle some difficult subjects with a deft touch. This story is ultimately an inspiring one about the resilience of the human spirit and how people can remain optimistic even in the face of darkness and oppression. In all, this book is an excellent one that packs a lot in and is basically like a punch to the heart.
***Please note: a free copy of this book was given to the writer through a Beauty & Lace giveaway. To read the original review on that website please visit: http://bookgirl.beautyandlace.net/book-club-freedom-swimmer