Ying Chang Compestine.
Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party
Henry Holt, 2007.
Ages 8 +
Ying Chang Compestine (The Real Story of Stone Soup) has produced a tour de force with Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party, her first novel, which takes its
title from Mao Tse Tung’s Little Red Book.
Although billed as a novel, Compestine has drawn heavily on her own family experiences growing up during China’s Cultural Revolution to tell the story of Ling, a nearly-nine-year-old girl at the beginning of the book. Compestine starts off painting the picture of a very happy, sheltered home-life. Ling’s parents are both doctors: her mother practises traditional Chinese medicine and her father is an eminent surgeon, who lives by his “Physician’s Creed”, even when he is ordered to scrub the floors of the hospital rather than carry out operations. Because the story is narrated by Ling herself, the shifts in relationships and vivid descriptions of everyday life come first from the lips of an innocent child who is trying to make sense of the seemingly senseless adult world around her, and then from a savvy, at times almost feral girl, who has had to become older than her years.
Part of the tension that Compestine creates at the beginning comes from the reader being aware of the shadows on Ling’s horizon long before she is. She realises, for example, that her parents dislike and distrust Comrade Li, who has taken over half their apartment – yet he appears kind to her at first. The book becomes even more compelling as we start to wonder how - and even if - she will emerge at the end. One theme which runs through the book (and this is consistent with Compestine's other writing to date) is food – whether it's an ice-cream shared with her father, the fruit Ling exchanges with Commander Li for origami birds, the rationing and food shortages, the medicine balls her mother makes or Ling's ponderings on Mao's statement "Revolution is not a dinner party".
Through Ling's young eyes, Compestine skilfully brings out the complexity of the characters and their reasons for acting the way they do. When Ling discovers that Niu, the son of dear neighbors and almost a brother to her, has joined the Red Guards, she feels overwhelmingly (and justifiably) betrayed. However Compestine does not condemn Niu outright – this is a very human and therefore a very complex story. In addition, Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party is also a beautifully written adventure story. Ling’s expected path in life is changed beyond recognition by the Cultural Revolution: but the grounding in freedom she has been given by her parents is a bedrock which no revolution can shake. Ling's innate courage and determination shine through, and her story will remain with readers long after they have put the book down.