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Feather in the Storm : A Childhood Lost in Chaos

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  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2006-10-03
  • Publisher: Pantheon
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"It is my hope that this memoir may serve as a reminder and a memorial to all of the children who were lost in the Chaos," Emily Wu writes at the beginning ofFeather in the Storm. Told from a child's and young girl's point of view, Wu's spellbinding accountwhich spans nineteen years of growing up during the chaos of China's Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolutionopens on her third birthday as she meets her father for the first time in a concentration camp. A well-known academic and translator of American literary classics, her father had been designated an "ultra-rightist" and class enemy. As a result, Wu's family would be torn apart and subjected to an unending course of humiliation, hardship and physical and psychological abuse. Wu tells her story of this hidden Holocaust, in which millions of children and their families died, through a series of vivid vignettes that brilliantlyand innocentlyevoke the cruelty and brutality of what was taking place daily in the world around her. From watching helplessly as the family apartment is ransacked and her father carted off by former students to be publicly beaten, to her own rape and the hard labor and primitive rituals of life in a remote peasant village, Wu is persecuted as a child of the damned. Wu's narrative is poignant, disturbing and unsentimental, and, despite the nature of what it describes, is filled with the resiliency of youthand even humor. That Emily Wu survived is remarkable. That she is able to infuse her story with such immediacy, power and unexpected beauty is the greatness of this book.Feather in the Stormis an unforgettable story of the courage and silent suffering of one small child set in a quicksand world of endless terror. From the Hardcover edition.

Author Biography

Emily Wu’s stories have appeared in both Chinese and American publications. She is one of the featured subjects in the film Up to the Mountain, Down to the Village. She lives with her two children in Cupertino, California.

Larry Engelmann is the author of five previous books, including Daughter of China. His writing has appeared in many publications, including American Heritage, Smithsonian, and the magazines of both the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post. He lives in San Jose, California.

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In the fourth winter of the famine I was returned to my family. It was the final week of January, a few days before the Lunar New Year. I was three and a half years old.

We lived in a large house in Tianjin. I slept beside my grandmother in a bedroom on the first floor. My mother, father and three sisters slept in an adjoining room. On the floors above us lived the families of three uncles and aunts. Nine adults and twelve children shared the house.

On my last morning in the house I was awakened before dawn by a gentle touch. Papa stood beside the bed, his finger to his lips to indicate that he did not want me to disturb Grandma. He carried me from the room and put me down on a stool in the corridor and then he gathered some of my clothing and my only toy-a doll-and put them in a bag. He helped me into my winter coat, tied my wool cap under my chin and wrapped a scarf around my neck. Finally, he helped me pull on my mittens and winter shoes. He put on his coat, picked up the bag of clothing and took my mittened hand in his. With hardly a sound, he unlatched the door, opened it just enough for us to squeeze through, and closed and locked it behind us.

The morning was cold and quiet. The air was filled with snowflakes. The courtyard was buried beneath a blanket of new snow. When Papa noticed it was difficult for me to get a footing on the slippery cobblestones, he stooped and lifted me in his arms. As he straightened up, a light came on in the bedroom where I'd been sleeping with Grandma. There was a muffled cry-"Maomao!"

I twisted in Papa's arms and was about to shout, "I'm here, Grandma." But Papa whispered, "Be quiet!" He hurried through the gate and out onto Happiness Lane. The anxious voice continued to call, "Maomao! Where are you?"

Papa rushed down the lane. Two blocks from the house he stopped to catch his breath. I wrapped my arms around his neck and laid my head on his shoulder.

We waited on the corner until a bus stopped for us. We rode silently through the sleeping city to the train station.

After buying our tickets Papa carried me into a crowded concourse. I pulled his ear and asked, "Where are we going?"

"I'm taking you home," he replied.

"But we are home, Papa."

He raised his finger to his lips.

An abrupt restlessness in the crowd startled me. Several shrill blasts from a whistle were followed by commands to begin boarding. We were carried along as the bustling mass of people moved toward the platform.

Papa held me tightly. When the crowd thinned he ran along the line of waiting cars watching in the windows for empty seats. After passing a dozen packed cars he bolted up the stairs into a car and hurried toward a single empty seat. A woman struggling with two big bags in one arm and a child in the other approached from the far end of the aisle. She snagged her bags on the back of a seat and stopped to pull them loose. Papa dropped into the vacant seat a few steps ahead of her. She looked around anxiously. A crowd converged on her from either end of the car and made an exit impossible.

After catching his breath Papa rose and hoisted our bag onto an overhead shelf. Then he sat down and pulled me onto his knee. The woman next to us held a girl about my age. The girl's face was flushed and her nose was running. Her watery eyes remained fixed on me.

An explosion of shouting and whistles sent people racing frantically back and forth across the platform. The cars shuddered and banged on their couplings. Those people standing in the aisles grabbed for overhead grips or the backs of seats as they tumbled against one another. Protests and cursing rose from one end of the car to the other. As we picked up speed the grumbling of disgruntled passengers faded to a low, steady hum of conversation.

The train made many stops. At each new station people crowded the platform. Most were peasants making their way to the cities to sell goods on the black market. They clutched baskets or carried nets and crates of live animals. They pushed past those trying to leave the car, filling every vacant space while further compressing unfortunate passengers remaining in the aisles.

At each stop the air was infused anew with a stench of soot, tobacco and animals. People shouted, scolded children and complained while climbing over one another. To this was added the noise of chickens and piglets. I watched the confusion of commerce and discomfort from my perch on Papa's lap.

Before long hunger pangs reminded me that I hadn't eaten breakfast or lunch. "Papa," I said, "I'm hungry."

He reached into his pocket and withdrew an old newspaper page tied with a string. Inside were two hard-boiled eggs. He handed me one and returned the other to his pocket. I pulled off my mittens and peeled the egg, letting the shell fragments fall to the floor. A whine sounded beside me. The girl in her mother's arms was reaching out, begging for my egg. I paused before taking a bite. The girl screamed. Several people in the aisle, emaciated and hungry-looking, watched me.

I cupped the egg in my hands. The girl's mother whispered in her ear and she quieted. I decided not to eat but, rather, to sleep.

I awakened later and became aware of the quiet around me. I opened my cupped hands and found . . . nothing. No egg! I searched on the floor and found bits of eggshell. I looked up at the little girl. She was asleep. On her chin I noticed a tiny speck of egg yolk.

I whispered to Papa that I was still hungry. He handed me the remaining egg. I quickly peeled it and gulped it down.

I asked Papa to get my doll from our bag. I told her all about our trip and how crowded the cars were and how hungry I had been. I promised I'd give her an egg when we got home.

"Do you like her?" Papa asked.


"She is a gift from your mama."

"No, she is not," I said.

Papa was about to add something but stopped himself and turned to stare out the window.

I remembered receiving the doll months earlier. A woman had come to our house accompanied by a boy. She spoke with Grandma and Papa. Early one morning she took me with her, and we traveled on the train to a place filled with very scary people. I cried and hid behind a bench and screamed that I wanted to go home.

Before she left with the boy, the woman gave me the doll and told me it was a birthday present.

The doll was little more than rags stitched together and stuffed with cotton. It was without a face or clothing. Papa, however, made her beautiful for me. He found a piece of plastic and cut it to fit the front of the head. He painted wide black eyes, rosy cheeks, and red lips on it. I watched him work as he brought her face to life. Grandma made a dress and slippers of matching material and presented the completed doll to me.

I played with her so much that her painted face chipped and faded. I examined her and noticed cracks in her face and a tear in one corner where the stitching had come undone. I told her I'd have Papa give her a new face when we got home.


Our journey ended shortly after daybreak the next morning. A voice on the loudspeaker announced that we had arrived in Hefei.

"You are almost home now, Maomao," Papa said. He pulled our bag from the rack, grasped me tightly and asked, "Are you ready?"

"Yes," I replied. Yet I had no idea what I was supposed to be ready for, except to see Grandma and Mama and my sisters.

Papa had me lock my arms around his neck as he pushed his way out of the car, through the station and onto the street.

In the brisk winter wind, I felt a cold draft on my feet. I suddenly remembered removing my shoes during the night and letting them fall to the floor. I'd forgotten them there.

I pulled Papa's collar and told him, "My shoes are on the train."

"What?" he asked in disbelief and looked at my bare feet. He glanced at the crowded station and sighed. "We'll just have to get you new ones." He undid a button on his jacket and had me stick my feet inside to keep them warm.

We boarded a bus and stood in the aisle for half an hour before getting off near a cluster of buildings. We approached one of them.

Papa read a number over the entrance and said, "Your mama and papa live here with your brother. You will live here, too."

I was frightened by his words. "No," I said. "They don't. I know where Mama and Papa live."

"Let's go meet them," he replied.

"I want to go home," I said in a tremulous voice. "Take me to Grandma."

"Maomao," he said, "listen to me. Don't call me Papa anymore. I am not your papa. I am your second uncle."

I searched his eyes, confused. I waited for him to say this was a game.

"From now on you must call me Second Uncle," he said.

Tears spilled down my face. I wrapped my arms tightly around his neck. "No," I cried. "Don't give me away, Papa. I'll be a good girl. I won't say I'm hungry again. No . . . no . . . no."

I clung to him, sobbing. He patted my back and said, "It's okay, Maomao. It's okay."

Papa carried me up the stairs to the second floor and knocked on a door. It swung open and a boy stood before us. Papa gave his name, and a moment later there was a flurry of footsteps and a man and a woman appeared at the door. The woman gasped, "What a surprise!" I buried my face in Papa's coat.

She touched my arm and said, "Maomao, come to Mama."

She sounded kind. The man beside her watched me through thick black-rimmed glasses. "Little Maomao, do you remember me?" he asked.

I shook my head.

"I am your papa," he said.

I studied the two adults and the boy, confused and apprehensive. The woman said, "Come in. You must be hungry and tired." She knelt and picked up my doll-without noticing, I'd dropped her. Before handing it to me, she said, "I gave you this doll, Maomao. Do you remember?"

"She's afraid," Papa said. "And she's shy."

He carried me down the hall to a room where a table was set up with stools around it.

"Where is Grandma?" I asked. There was no answer to my question. The woman said, "Maomao, come here." Papa handed me to her. I struggled to hang on to him, but he pried my arms loose. As she pulled me to her, she saw my bare feet and asked, "Where are her shoes?"

"I'm afraid we lost them on the train," Papa said.

"I'll find something for her," the woman said. She carried me into a small adjoining room. She sat me on the bed and put a pair of slippers on my feet. She told me, "Maomao, walk slowly and they'll stay on and keep your feet warm."

She took my hand and helped me slide from the bed. I stayed close to her but as we walked from the room my feet came out of the slippers. I stopped and reached back with each foot, felt around with my toes, and put the slippers on without using my hands.

She laughed. Side by side and hand in hand, taking small steps so my slippers stayed on, we joined the others.


I didn't realize how hungry I was until I was seated at the table and food was placed before me. I eagerly devoured my entire serving. When I held up my bowl and asked for more, everyone looked at me. "There is no more, Maomao," Mama said. And then, "Listen to that Tianjin accent! Other children here are not going to understand her."

That evening Second Uncle and Papa set up a white wooden crib. Mama put me in it. My new brother, whose name was Yiding, slept with my parents in their bed and Second Uncle slept in a bed beside the crib.

I lay in my crib and listened to the adults in the next room.

"I remember when you brought her to Tianjin," Second Uncle said.

"February 1960," Mama said. "It broke my heart, but . . . what could I do? If I'd kept her with me, we would have all starved."

"I know." Second Uncle sighed.

"She was one and a half," Mama said.

"She has been with us for two years," Second Uncle said. "We're the only family she knows. She'll need time to adjust."

I heard the scratch of a match and smelled cigarette smoke.

"Our mother starved herself for Maomao," Second Uncle said. "I tried to stop her, tried to get Mother to eat her food, but she found a way to give it to Maomao. We talked about it-the brothers and sisters. We concluded that the best solution was to bring Maomao back to you."

His words reminded me of an episode a few days earlier. I had been playing hide-and-seek with my sisters. I crept into my bedroom and hid behind the clothing inside a large wardrobe. I heard footsteps. A moment later Grandma and Second Uncle started talking a few feet from me.

"She is killing you," Second Uncle said.

"No," Grandma replied. "She's no trouble. She's a blessing."

"I know what I see," Second Uncle said. After a pause and a rustling of paper he said, "I bought these at the black market. You give her most of your food. She's healthy and you are not. Promise me you'll eat these."

"I will," she promised.

Second Uncle left. I stepped from the wardrobe. Grandma looked up and smiled. "Come here," she whispered. I hurried to her, and she said, "Eat these, quickly!" She held out a small pack of roasted peanuts wrapped in newspaper.

I stuffed some in my mouth. Grandma held the others as I chewed and swallowed, and she urged, "Quickly!"

Excerpted from Feather in the Storm: A Childhood Lost in Chaos by Emily Wu, Larry Engelmann
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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