As the Japanese advance through China in 1938, a young widowed mother aims to flee her Changsha home in 1938 for the relative safety of the newly-established capital of Chongqing. But first Meilin and her four-year-old son Renshu must escape in one piece.
The city is a sea of flames. The roads are filling as others flee the blaze. Some in carts, some in wagons filled with families, furniture, pots, sacks of grain. Many people are on foot, balancing shoulder poles with hastily packed and overflowing baskets. And there are some who escaped with only their nightclothes and whatever they could grab. Army jeeps weave through the masses, headed against the flow, towards the burning city.
This is the backdrop of Melissa Fu’s debut novel, Peach Blossom Spring. As Meilin prepares to leave, she packs an antique scroll her late husband had given her. He had been killed in action and it’s in his memory that she includes this scroll in the few belongings she carries. Although she can always sell it if they run out of money or food, it also serves as entertainment for young Renshu when they’re on the run. Each portion of the scroll tells a different story and Meilin only tells him one story at a time. When they encounter destruction on their escape, Meilin also explains to her son that they are in effect living in a real life scroll of stories.
“This,” she gestures at the landscape around them, scarred with burned fields and abandoned, bombed-out structures, the river crowded with boats of all sizes heading upstream, and people walking with forlorn burdens, “this is just one scene. It’s like our scroll. We can only unroll it one scene at a time. We have to keep going to see what the next one is.”
The title of the book comes from one of the stories in the scroll Meilin tells Renshu after they leave Chongqing for the next stage of their escape from the war. The classic story of Peach Blossom Spring, which dates from the 5th century, involves an old fisherman who falls asleep and later finds himself before a grove of peach trees. When he leaves his boat and walks through the grove, he discovers a utopia of rice and tea fields with people of all ages laughing and dogs playing. Renshu asks what happened next and Meilin explains that the old fisherman stayed in this paradise.
Mother and son make their way to Meilin’s hometown of Yichang in Hubei province, then Shanghai, and finally Taipei. Years later, as a graduate student in the United States, when Renshu has adopted the name of Henry, he later realizes that his mother never finished the complete Peach Blossom Spring story when he was younger. She explains that there is no right or a wrong ending. Sometimes a good ending may turn out to be disappointing and vice versa, and often it’s not wise to look back after leaving a place, a lesson that comes to the fore when Henry takes a classified job at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory and the story intersects with the white terror inflicted by the KMT in the Taiwan of the 1960s and 1970s, a reminder of that part of Taiwanese history that stands in contrast to contemporary Taiwan with its free elections and gender equality.
The peach blossom spring theme persists through the story’s next generation and Henry’s biracial daughter Lily, and nicely rounds out Fu’s impressive debut work.