Dreams of Joy is the sequel to See's best-seller Shanghai Girls, which told the stories of sisters May and Pearl, who immigrated to Los Angeles in the 1930s to escape the Japanese invasion. May was pregnant when they left China, but the two agreed that the more serious sister Pearl would raise the little girl, Joy. At the end of Shanghai Girls, Joy learned that her mother was actually her aunt and vice versa. In addition, her activities in her first year at the University of Chicago had brought FBI and INS attention to her family, and her adoptive father Sam committed suicide to avoid having his illegal status discovered. Furious with her aunt and mother, guilty about Sam's suicide, and curious about her biological father (a well-known artist in China who was loved by both May and Pearl) and the new China, Joy takes off for Shanghai.
When she arrives, she rather easily locates her father, Z.G., but he has run afoul of the new government and is being sent to the rural areas to teach painting. Joy accompanies him to Green Dragon Village, where she is shocked by the conditions in which people lives but where she also falls in love with a young peasant Tao. When Z.G. is allowed to leave the countryside, the two go to Canton and then Peking, where Joy attends lavish parties and meets Mao.
Meanwhile, Pearl, Joy's adoptive mother, has traveled to Shanghai to try to retrieve her daughter. While waiting for Z.G. and Joy to return to Shanghai, she deals with officialdom, gets a job, and moves into her childhood home with other boarders. When Z.G. and Joy return to Shanghai, Pearl cannot convince Joy to return to the United States. In fact, Joy soon returns to Green Dragon Village (which has become part of a larger commune), where she impulsively marries Tao. Living in a shack with 10 other people, Joy is soon disillusioned with her marriage and rural life. When she becomes pregnant, however, she decides she must stay. Things rapidly get much worse, as the Great Leap Forward gets underway and famine sweeps across the countryside. Joy is disillusioned with the new China and her marriage, but it takes extraordinary effort on her part and that of Pearl and Z.G. before she can escape.
As always, See has done extensive research, and at times the information about the consequences of misguided government policy is so dense and compelling that for me it overwhelmed the story about family, betrayal, and the consequences of individual and societal decisions. At the same time, that information makes Dreams of Joy worth reading.
Tomorrow, Novel Conversations will be discussing Dreams of Joy and skyping with Lisa See, which we are quite excited about. I will post some notes from that conversation in a day or two.
Those who have little to lose don't want to lose what little they have.