This novel gives a first-person perspective of adolescence in Shanghai in the 1950s and 60s, a time of upheaval and daily drama in the live of even the most ordinary of people. Through the perspective of our young narrator, we can observe the social reality of the time, impacted by the enormous tide of political changes.
We follow our narrator as he navigates the difficulties anyone might face in growing up: shifting loyalties among friends, conflicts with teacher and other significant adults in his life, and an array of family troubles. His single mother is raising him with the help of his grandparents, together struggling to keep this poor family afloat while adhering to their moral code. Always lurking in the background is his now deceased father, once a member of the Guomindang (KMT) military police, who was divorced from his mother twice.
Against this backdrop of "normal" domestic drama is the turbulent background of China under Mao Zedong. All over China, urban youth were being transferred to the countryside, and our narrator shares this fate. We follow him as he prepares for this monumental change, having been informed that he would go to a farm on Chongming, a rural island north of Shanghai.
Among the novel's carefully drawn characters—the friends, family and neighbors of the narrator—is the city itself, as the author depicts the culture and customs unique to Shanghai.
Through his striking picture of a "normal" young man, the author has captured the lives of many unknown and unremembered people whose destinies were influenced by political movements. This novel represents the memory of the youth of a generation.