Sister – by Peng Xuejun

nishiwo1Peng Xuejun’s 彭学军 award winning novel Sister 《你是我的妹》 is a beautiful and dramatic story for older children that takes place in Yunnan, sometime in the early 1970s. The young protagonist and narrator is a nine-year-old girl whose mother has been sent down to the countryside to learn from the people. The family (the narrator has a sister) settles in a tiny village with a population of farmers belonging to the Miao people, and although life here is very different and certainly harder and more austere than in the city, it’s also a new and interesting world for the children to explore. 

The narrator and her sister Laobian – whom the rest of the villagers call “the cadre girls” – soon find new friends, and most of the book tells the story of Ah Tao (Peach) and her five younger sisters: Second Peach, Third Peach, Fourth Peach, Fifth Peach and, finally, Sixth Peach, also known as Mei (Little sister). Ah Tao’s father desperately wants a son and every time his wife gives birth to a girl his disappointment is enormous. His reaction when a new girl is born is to cut down one of the beautiful peach trees in the family garden, and by the time his wife is pregnant with her sixth child there is only one tree left. And then, Sixth Peach is born. What will happen to the last peach tree?

Ah Tao loves all her sisters, but she’s especially fond of Mei. When her parents decide that they can’t afford to keep Mei and have to give her away to relatives in a nearby village Ah Tao is devastated. Still, she handles her sadness the way she handles all problems: with dignity and determination. After leaving Mei with the relatives – who have five sons, but no daughter – she decides to give up her plans to marry the village teacher, Long, and instead take care of Mei. But although Mei returns to the family her life is short, and Ah Tao’s sacrifice has been in vain …

Sister (or You’re my little sister, as the book is called in Chinese) is a sad and sometimes quite cruel story about life in the southwestern Chinese countryside in the early 1970s. The narrator admires Ah Tao and learns a lot about life and loyalty from her. But village life is not all peace and quiet, and parts of the novel are quite scary. Mei is killed by a group of wild boars that attack her when she’s sleeping alone at home, a scene that could easily terrify a sensitive reader. Another sister nearly drowns while the children are playing close to the river. And the narrator is herself saved from a wild boar by an old village woman who lures the boar into a trap, sacrificing her own life in the process.

Mostly, though, this is a story of solidarity and of what it means to be a friend and a good sister in hard times. We also get wonderful descriptions of village life and Miao customs, seen through the eyes of someone who, like us, is an outsider and tries to learn and understand what’s going on and how the villagers think. However, although the narrator is nine years old I’d still recommend the book for slightly older readers.

Sister has been translated into English by Wu Zheng, and published in two different editions by Better Link Press/Shanghai Press and Publishing Development Company. At least one of them seems to be bilingual. I haven’t read the translation, but if it’s good I’d strongly recommend the publishers make a new edition with a somewhat more enticing cover. No child will feel tempted to read books that look like this:

pengsystrar

It’s especially sad since most of the Chinese editions (there are several) have really beautiful illustrations.

The book:

  • Sister by Peng Xuejun (translated bu Wu Zheng), Better Link Press 2006, ISBN 9781602202030, and 2007, ISBN 9781602209114.

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