Cassia and Momo have everything to look forward to in 1979. They are expecting their second child, China is healing from the trauma of the Cultural Revolution and Momo has applied to US graduate programs in physics with the hope of eventually bringing his family there for more opportunities. Momo’s main reason for uprooting the family is to help the couple’s first child, a daughter named Junie, born three years earlier without her lower legs and feet. As events unfold, these plans prove more difficult to execute than first imagined.
Linda Rui Feng’s debut novel, Swimming Back to Trout River, tells the stories of Cassia, Momo, and Junie, each presented with the chance to leave a painful past behind even if these plans do not allow their family to stay together.
After Momo moves to the dismally-named college town of Chimney Bluffs somewhere in the middle of the United States, Cassia plans to join him there. Junie, like many children in 1980s China, is left with her grandparents, in this case to a village called Trout River. She’s five when she moves in with her doting grandparents and acclimates quickly, enjoying life in the idyllic countryside. When she’s ten, her father writes to her and promises to bring her to the United States in the not too distant future.
I promise you that we will be reunited here by your twelfth birthday—just a year and a half away! Turning twelve is a milestone in a person’s life, and we will celebrate it all together.
Junie instead intends to stay with her grandparents until they’re much older and she’s at the age where she can take care of them. If she’s forced to reunite with her parents in the US, she vows to swim back to her grandparents in Trout River.
Music has a central role in the story; Momo had learned to play the violin before the Cultural Revolution and music also gets Momo through lonely nights in Chimney Bluffs in his early days there.
It was during the first winter in Chimney Bluffs when Momo longed for a violin of his own. He particularly longed for its sound in the lower registers, the kind that came close to a groan from the bowels of the earth, but one that was also capable of rising into the clouds. He wanted this most when the sun had slunk low in the sky, when he could see darkness rising from the plangent plains.
He tries to teach some basic notes to Junie before he departs for America, hoping that she can excel in something like the violin to make up for her inability to walk. Other characters also play the violin, including Momo’s first love, Dawn, and Viridiana Bae-Virag, a pop music virtuoso loosely (and somewhat far-fetchedly) based on Vanessa-Mae.
The denouement develops somewhat unnaturally with a deus ex machina conclusion, but Feng mitigates this by showing how families are often split up when one or both parents emigrate and cannot take their children with them. And it’s this part of the story that stands out. Even though Momo and Cassia obtain the proper paperwork to move to the US, their family is still separated as Junie remains in China. For all the talk about legal versus undocumented immigration, in the end it sometimes makes little difference when it comes to family unity.