by Wai Chim – Allen & Unwin, 2016
ages 12 years and up / fiction, young adult
We talk about history, in part, to draw strength for the present. The remembrance of lives that were lived through unthinkable moments in time helps us to not only be wary of repeating history, but also to be compassionate and courageous in standing up for people outside our immediate circle of influence.
History, especially when told as story connects us in personal ways with individuals—real or imagined—and that connection narrows time and space.
In Freedom Swimmer, we’re connected to two young boys, Ming and Li, who narrate their story.
Ming lives in Guangdong Province, China and he has been through what the Party has called Three Years Natural Disaster. With the death of his mother he is left without family in the midst of an unthinkable famine, under the unflinching rule of Mao Zedong.
Ming and the others living in his village are told they will be the Party’s ‘pride and joy, the final teachers of the revolution embodying the very soul of the Communist Party.’
Li is a Red Guard and he meets Ming when he is sent to the country to learn from the villagers.
A surprising and deeply loyal friendship develops between the boys and we watch as it grows and strengthens in spite of the desperation of their circumstances.
Although life is harsh and they are often hungry, Ming and Li make the brave, risk-filled decision to escape China by swimming to Hong Kong. Ming remembers a conversation with his father that helped him to make the decision:
‘My father smiled. ‘Treasures and trinkets may be valuable, but there is no price you can put on what Hong Kong can offer a village man like you or me.’
The majority of the story is about Ming and Li’s friendship, their decision to swim, and the planning and execution of the swim. However, because this is a story based on the life of the author's father, the reality of the swim, the struggle to make a living in Hong Kong and the lives of those who remain in China are all part of the tale. And, as is so often the case, life after escape as a refugee is not easy; it's marked by poverty and fear. But there is closure and a reserved happiness in both boys’ lives in the end.
Some ideas I appreciated in Freedom Swimmer:
I really like the intertwining of courage and compassion shown by Fei—a young girl who Ming loves, and who later marries Li. She too is hungry and desperate and yet, in spite of her Aunt’s unforgiving warnings, she leaves food for Ming. Finding courage to show compassion is the hallmark of humanity when confronted with inhumanity—it's something that challenges even the most privileged among us.
Ming and Li manage to recover lost hope over and over again. There are times of worry and fear, such as when Li learns that his father has been taken away. Li says:
“My heart stopped. My mind blanked. A cold nothingness settled over me.
There was no coming back. Our family was doomed.”
These moments act as a foil for the determined hope that Ming and Li display. For example, Ming writes to Fei when he is intimidated by her aunt and when there is really no reason to expect change:
“Our days begin and end with the rising and setting of the sun. East to West. But maybe there’s more to the end of the day than just darkness. Maybe in the nightfall, we will find true light.”
Recovering lost hope is a key skill for emotional resilience in everyday life as much as in times of oppression and extremities.
The story of Ming and Li highlights the plight of refugees and asylum seekers—it puts a face to history—and it's a good starting point for discussions about refugees and about the role of nations and individuals in welcoming them.
A small reading / viewing hint:
Ming’s character is based on the author’s father, but there were many freedom swimmers between the 1950’s and 1974. If you’d like to see another story from the same time, this 20 minute Vimeo doco is worth watching.
Freedom Swimmer isn’t a book of philosophy—it’s more a story told in an enticing way, so it's quick and easy reading for adults and YA. There's no whitewashing, but the story is told in a way that makes it entirely appropriate for younger people, perhaps as young as 10 or 12-years.