Seven-year-old Sunflower has always lived in the city with her father, an artist, until the government sends him to the Cadre School out in the country. While he works all day and attends meetings at night, Sunflower visits the nearby river, looking across at the village of Damaidi. The villagers seem so different from her, but one boy, Bronze, shows her kindness, and the two become friends, even though Bronze cannot speak.
When Sunflower’s father is killed in an accident, no one at the school is able to look after her, so they ask the villagers to take her in. Bronze’s family, despite their poverty, offer her a home, and soon they are like her own family. As they share everything they have with her, and sacrifice to give her a chance to go to school, Sunflower, young as she is, struggles to find ways to make her own contributions to the family.
“Bronze and Sunflower,” set during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, doesn’t delve too deeply into the politics of the time, but paints a memorable picture of the hardships undergone by many. Some of the occurrences are difficult to read about, such as the drowning of Sunflower’s father, or the razing of the village’s crops by locusts and the subsequent near-starvation of the people. But they’re generally described in ways that all but the most sensitive middle-school readers can handle. Sometimes I was reminded of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books, with their straightforward but age-appropriate descriptions of hard times for the pioneers.
While the writing is beautiful, even poetic, the plot may be a little rambling and repetitive to hold the attention of many in the target age group. But they will probably like most of the characters, especially Bronze, who demonstrates a fierce, sacrificial love for his sister. He is willing to do anything for her, including giving up his own chance to go to school, and even taking her punishments.
The family is a warm and loving one, who work hard to sustain themselves and care for each other, and their relationships are admirable — for the most part. Though Bronze is close to his father to begin with, as things get worse for the family, his father sometimes loses his temper and punishes Bronze unfairly and harshly, now and then even beating him. Bronze’s kindly grandmother usually intervenes and makes the father stop.
But we don’t see much remorse on the father’s part for his harshness. Wenxuan has a bad habit of ending scenes so abruptly, and jumping ahead so far, that we don’t get to see any character growth or life lessons resulting from incidents such as these. It’s an unfortunate weakness in a book that otherwise has many strengths. (There is no profanity or sexual content, aside from one brief description of ducks mating that was so innocuous and vague that even this adult reader wasn’t quite sure what was going on. The only references to religion are occasional mentions of prayer.) It sometimes seems that the only point to the children’s trials and suffering is to excite our pity; there’s not usually a redemptive quality to it.
This weakness aside, though, “Bronze and Sunflower” is an interesting and imaginative story. Though it may not suit middle-schoolers who like their stories action-packed, others may find it a worthwhile read.
Image copyright Walker Books Ltd. Review copy obtained from the reviewer’s local library.