Ming survived the famine that killed his parents during China’s ‘Great Leap Forward’, and lives a hard but adequate life, working in the fields…When a group of city boys comes to the village as part of a Communist Party re-education program, Ming and his friends aren’t sure what to make of the new arrivals. They’re not used to hard labour and village life. But despite his reservations, Ming befriends a charming city boy called Li. The two couldn’t be more different, but slowly they form a bond over evening swims and shared dreams…But as the bitterness of life under the Party begins to take its toll on both boys, they begin to imagine the impossible: freedom.
Freedom Swimmer by Wai Chim
Published: September 1st 2016 by Allen & Unwin
Source: Written in Wonder
I know very little about the Cultural Revolution (let alone freedom swimmers) but this story steps into the heart and soul of the characters while also building a compelling glimpse of the changes throughout their lives. Ming’s relationship with his deceased parents is heartfelt and raw in its honesty. His passion to learn, impulse to dream and curiosity over the events around him lead him to understand why certain dreams were important to them too.
Li’s contrasting chapters and outlook on life highlights how different backgrounds shape perceptions around morality and safety. As they bridge their differences, Ming and Li are connected by a sense of empathy and a perceptive gaze around the surrounding events. I loved how their friendship grew as they took time to listen to each other, respect one another and build upon each other’s strengths. Ming’s first attempts at letter writing to charm his crush with Li’s help are charming exchanges. These moments combined with Li’s swimming lessons under Ming’s guidance are some of my favourite scenes in the book. Ming’s poetry also has a place in my heart.
As their questions around the stifling aspects of the system governing the town rise, they begin to share a dream to escape. The fact that Ming and Li’s perilous swim for freedom draws from the real life experiences of swimmers before them (including the author’s father’s experience) is confronting and bittersweet. Ultimately, Freedom Swimmer is a hopeful book that I would recommend to any interested reader of friendships and young adult historical fiction.
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