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"Daughters of Shandong" | Reviewed by Chris Stuckenschneider

A heartfelt family story set in China in the 1940s, when the Communists and Nationalists vehemently vied for power in the country. In a sentence, that’s what readers can expect with “Daughters of Shandong,” an engaging work of historical fiction by Eve J. Chung.

Drawing on experiences her grandmother endured during that tumultuous time, the author gifts us with a thorough, yet easy-to-understand overview of this period when the Communists doled out cruel treatment and imposed strict rules on citizens, being especially inhumane to those from esteemed, landholding families, and others with Nationalist loyalties.

The book is narrated by Hai, the oldest daughter of the wealthy Ang family who live in rural Shandong, their palatial home’s courtyard guarded by massive stone lions. Though they want for little, there is strife within the walls because the family has no male heir.

Hai sees how badly her mother Chiang-Yue is treated by Hai’s grandmother Nai Nai, but can do nothing because respect for elders is paramount. Nai Nai chastises Chiang-Yue because she hasn’t had a baby boy, and punishes her for even the slightest mistake, forcing her to kneel for hours at a time. Hai’s father sides with his mother, doing nothing to prevent his wife from being held prisoner in her own house.

Hai is the oldest girl, followed by Di, then Three, who isn’t named because her birth is not welcomed by Nai Nai and Hai’s father. The youngest girl is Li-Lan. Sadly, Three dies from tuberculosis, a death that breaks Chiang-Yue's heart, the first of many trials the strong woman must face, their lives changing drastically as the "Communist tide advanced," and the capital of Shandong falls.

Knowing they are in grave danger, Hai’s father, Nai Nai and other extended relatives flee to Taiwan, leaving Chiang-Yue, Hai, Di and Li-Lan behind so they can assure the Angs won't lose their home and land. Hai's father assures his wife and offspring he will send for them once he has the family settled. This never transpires. Instead, the deserted group face peril at the hands of the Communists as they try to get information about the whereabouts of the rest of the Ang family.

It's Hai who must endure the worst treatment, a beating that nearly takes her life, and leaves her traumatized. This is not the end of the trials for Chiang-Yue and her daughters. Forced from their home, and without any money, they become refugees like so many others, moving from place to place, eating whatever garbage they can find, and working menial jobs in their unrelenting effort to survive starvation, illness and the unrelenting Communists.

The dire conditions cause animosity to grow between the older sisters, Hai the caretaker and Di the rebel. Though they love one they don’t get along, their arguments frequently growing physical. Much of the stress originates from their mother's continued desire to get to Taiwan and be reunited with her husband, believing a dutiful wife should be with her family.  As the four attempt this arduous journey, obstacles continually arise.

“Daughters of Shandong” is a consuming read with sympathetic, admirable characters, especially Chiang-Yue and Hai. This book is a lasting tribute to the author’s late grandmother, and a wonderful selection for readers who enjoy a poignant story based on factual information.

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