Dreams of Joy is the sequel to Shanghai Girls, which I read and loved back in August. Those of you who have read Shanghai Girls will remember that Joy had just found out that her mother Pearl isn't really her mother at all but her aunt, and that her biological father is an artist still living in China. With the impulsiveness and surety of youth, Joy gives up her American life and travels to Communist China to 'help build the New China'. Looking at everything through rose-tinted glasses, she thinks she has found a rural idyll and a simple life far away from the consumerism and prejudice she has experienced in America. So she thinks nothing of surrendering her passport, of losing her ability to travel around China, of falling in love with a man from the village (now Dandelion Commune number eight). Pearl, with the wisdom of experience, can see the trouble her daughter is involving herself with and also abandons everything to travel to China in an attempt to bring her home.
I was apprehensive about reading Dreams of Joy, as I enjoyed Shanghai Girls so much, but I shouldn't have worried - I loved it. Throughout the whole first half of the book, as Joy embraced Communist China and commune life and all it stood for I wanted to reach through the book and shake her. Having studied The Great Leap Forward and Communist China, I had a great sense of foreboding and was waiting for the other shoe to drop. Joy is so headstrong and so determined to love everything about China and village life that she is beyond being made to see otherwise, and at a certain point, Pearl has to let her make her own mistakes. Other reviewers have complained of Joy's naivety for thinking everything is charming and perfect in the communes, but I thought it fit with her character - when you are so determined for something to be right, you simply don't see the bad.
In the second half of the book, the other shoe drops as See starts describing the effects of The Great Leap Forward. Communes were led by leaders that had no clue about farming, leading to mistakes in planting and harvesting and consequently a radical drop in food production. At the same time, the pressure was on to have higher and higher yields leading to a massive famine, with some estimates putting it at 45 million dead. People started to abandon and even eat their own babies and children out of desperation. I thought See effectively conveyed the suffering of people that had been made to abandon the farming practises that they knew worked, for those that they knew wouldn't, but were unable to speak up due to terrible consequences for those that did. Starving must be truly a terrible way to die. Other aspects of Communist China are touched upon - meetings where 'rightist elements' are denounced, internal travel restrictions, cruelty towards anyone who had been well off before communism, unrealistic targets and announcements. As always, See had done her research and wrote about these topics knowledgeably.
Some parts of the plot did require a bit of suspension of belief in the way that the characters were able to move around the country and make plans to leave whilst remaining undetected. I also missed the character of May, who stayed in America and was only in the novel in the form of letters she wrote to Pearl. The dynamic between the two sisters was something I enjoyed about Shanghai Girls and this was missing in Dreams of Joy. But these are minor criticisms compared to how much I enjoyed reading the book - in the final chapters I was reading as fast as I could as I was desperate to see what would happen to Joy and Pearl. Highly recommended.
Verdict: Excellent sequel to Shanghai Girls that illuminates Chinese suffering during the Great Leap Forward.
Source: Library (reservation)
First Published: 2011
Score: 5 out of 5