The Vagrants / Yiyun Li

“The Vagrants” begins on March 21, 1979—spring equinox—a time of rebirth after a long, cold winter. It introduces the reader to a group of people living in Muddy River, a provincial city in China. As the story opens, posters are being put up announcing the execution of Gu Shan, a young female counterrevolutionary. They inform citizens that for educational purposes, all school and work units are required to attend the pre-execution denunciation ceremony. Meanwhile, her distraught parents are preparing to burn their only child’s clothing to ease her journey into the next world. The father of the dissident, Teacher Gu, retreats into memories after the execution, but his grieving wife is determined to get officials to admit they had made an error in killing her daughter. This is at a time when, in far off Beijing, the Democratic Wall Movement has ignited an anti-government groundswell seeking to open China to a more democratic and just government. Centering on the aftermath of the execution, the novel captures the rebirth of hope in Muddy River following Mao’s death. Student activists in the city, fired by the country’s general unrest, decide to hold a rally to protest the execution of Gu Shan. The government at first is divided on how to react to the public protests sweeping the country. But when the Communist party in Beijing finally moves to crush the Democratic Wall Movement, officials in Muddy River follow suit by arresting any citizen who took part in the rally. In this, her debut novel, Yiyun Li vividly weaves together the stories of a group of characters caught up in events they have little understanding of or control over. By detailing the daily routines of these people, as well as their hopes and dreams, the author puts a human face to the government’s brutal crackdown. Ultimately, it is a story of a false spring that withers on the vine. While the book is often grim and heart rending, the story is a moving one. The families and individuals Li portrays represent a microcosm of not only the citizens living in Muddy River, but China as a whole.

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