“One death is a tragedy,” goes the gruesome quip, “one million is a statistic.” Even the inner ring of Dante’s “Inferno” pales next to the nightmare that confronted rural Chinese during Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward, from 1958 to 1961. Historians put the death toll from starvation and disease at between 30 million and 45 million.
Which brings me back to that grim truth about how we react to numbers. The death of 30 million to 45 million people is a jaw-dropping statistic, but it’s still utterly incomprehensible. “Dreams of Joy,” Lisa See’s sequel to her 2009 novel, “Shanghai Girls,” makes that tragedy real and personal.
Although it isn’t necessary to have read “Shanghai Girls” to understand “Dreams of Joy,” it enriches the experience if you have. That previous novel introduced sisters Pearl and May Chin, young models in Shanghai in 1937. Their lives are cushy: Their mother loves them, men adore them, and their pictures are plastered across the city to sell cigarettes and soap. All hell breaks loose, though, when the Japanese invade and their father sells the girls into arranged marriages. Thus begins a picaresque from Shanghai to Los Angeles, a journey in which Pearl pretends to be the mother of May’s baby, Joy. Their lives come apart in 1957, when the FBI is investigating the family to see whether they’re communists. Joy learns that May is her actual mother and the Chinese painter Z.G. Li is her father. The novel ends when Joy leaves for China to help build the communist nation and find her dad, her mother in pursuit to bring her home.
Meanwhile, Pearl arrives in Shanghai days after Z.G. and Joy leave for the commune. Although all three will be reconciled briefly in Shanghai after Z.G. has reestablished his reputation and returned from the country, soon Joy heads back to Dandelion Number Eight to be with the young man with whom she has fallen in love.
Much of the first half of the book is devoted to how the two women cope with their reduced circumstances. Joy misses the indoor plumbing she took for granted in Los Angeles; Pearl is a street sweeper in Shanghai, wistfully collecting scraps of the posters of her and her sister that once adorned city walls. She takes up residence as a boarder in a single room in what had once been the family home.
In the second half of the novel, the story grows darker and more powerful. What Joy viewed as the pastoral utopia from her first stay at the commune slides into the slow-motion killing fields of the Great Leap Forward: People are starving to death as the agricultural plenty of the new nation is mismanaged by urban commune leaders who understand nothing about farming. Joy says, “Hunger has turned me into an old woman nearing death.” Families are “hiding the corpse of mother, father, brother, sister, wife, husband, grandma, or grandpa in the house, so an extra ration can be picked up each day at the canteen.” Other families, even more desperate to eat, are resorting to cannibalism, trading their infants in a ritual they call “Swap Child, Make Food.”
Back in Shanghai, Pearl can’t get a travel permit to see Joy because the regime doesn’t want anyone in the city to know how dire the situation in the county has become. But Pearl has her suspicions.
Once again, See’s research feels impeccable, and she has created an authentic, visually arresting world. Sometimes, I wish she had used her considerable talents as a stylist to convey Joy’s naivete, instead of relying upon period-friendly shortcuts. The character talks about going to “second base” with Tao, her future husband, and refers to sex as the “husband-wife thing.” But once her life begins to unravel, Joy comes of age fast, and through her we glimpse the tragedy in one of history’s most horrifying statistics.