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A Novel Way into History

My wonderful local library, The Roeliff Jansen Community Library, wanted to begin a book group last fall. To start the group, they’d already approached my neighbor and close friend, Sheila Moss, who’d been in book groups in New York City, for more than a decade. Sheila was willing to do it if I would “co-facilitate” to get things going, but little did we know that Sheila would have to be out of town for our second group meeting. So I led the discussion about Bette Bao Lord’s book Spring Moon (1981), a novel covering 80 years of crucial Chinese history, from the 1890s to the time of President Nixon’s historic trip to China in 1972.

The novel portrayed well the lives of an upper-class Chinese family, who slowly find themselves with integral roles in revolutionary changes, from the time of Sun-Yat-sen through Mao’s Long March and then into the the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. As high school English teachers hope when they assign historic novels, I felt a close connection to these historical periods through the characters. But I wanted to know more about the actual history. And (warning: shameless plug ahead) I found what I needed, not online, but in our own Berkshire works, the Encyclopedia of Modern Asia and the Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History, where I read great overviews of China, and specific articles on all the key topics and people. Although I’d probably looked over all those articles before they went into publication, I don’t think I really appreciated their value until I really needed them for reference. Belated kudos to all our scholars and copy editors who made these entries so rich and accessible.

And one other nugget from my reading that I wanted to share. Bette Bao Lord has one of her main characters reflect (in a 1912 letter),
“Sometimes I wonder if a republic can be made to work at all where old ties cannot be denied and news laws are not understood or respected. I fear that when change comes to ancient ways, no matter how long in the making, no matter how fervently wished for, chaos follows.” In one of those “Aha!” moments, I realized that it’s all too easy for those of us in the U.S. — a country started without old ties and ancient ways — to misunderstand how and why such chaos can follow having a new type of government imposed (however great we may feel it is).

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