There was a definite bias throughout the first several years of Newbery Awards toward books about foreigners and foreign lands. The winner for 1933 was one of these: Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze chronicles the adventures of a country farm boy who moves with his widowed mother to the city of Chungking to undertake an apprenticeship to Tang the coppersmith.
The action takes place in the 1920s, at a time when China was in great internal conflict. Westerners encroached on Chinese tradition bringing their own ways and technology, nationalism conflicted with growing Communist sentiments, and the common people of the nation sought to adapt and survive.
Young Fu experiences this turmoil while simultaneously growing from a naive and arrogant country bumpkin into a wise young man of eighteen whose temper is somewhat chastened and whose pride is greatly diminished. He learns the coppersmith trade despite accumulating a great debt for a paltry thing, incurring the hatred of beggars, witnessing murder, and being attacked by thieves.
Author Elizabeth Foreman Lewis spent many years in China as a Methodist missionary and teacher, and she clearly absorbed the history, culture, and traditions of the place. Her tale can only be described as gritty: not the lighthearted story many readers expect from a children's novel, but a sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes sad and unsettling coming-of-age tale.
If there's anything to complain about it's that Lewis isn't a particularly brilliant writer. She simply says what she has to say without flair or embellishment, and while that's okay in a way, it also means she takes longer to tell her story at times than would be necessary if she had a better grasp of metaphor or other literary tropes.
That said, the story of Young Fu's development is a fascinating one. Unlike other Newbery books about distant lands and past times, this one is universally praised for its realism and accuracy. And we don't just get descriptions, we actually see these customs in action, from the bandages on Fu's mother's feet to the cash sacrifices to the gods in exchange for good health.
Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze is a rewarding read. Fu grows up to honor and obtain the classical virtues of honesty, hard work, respect for elders, and responsibility. He also experiences a number of adventures reflecting the exciting times in which he lives, and through all of them he either pursues the noble course or repents of his deeds when he doesn't.
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