-- Richie Havens (1941-2013)
"I've been reading about China for a long time, and the more I learn the more I want to know.
"So when Mr. Stoltz called Mao 'the father of his nation,' the George Washington of modern China, it set me off.
"On certain subjects I feel strongly, and sometimes when I hear something dumb, or wrong, I can't stop myself.
"This was one of those times.
"I raised my hand.
"Mr. Stoltz sighed.
"I said I didn't recall that George Washington ever caused a famine that killed twenty million of his countrymen.
"To which one of my classmates, a boy with expensive sunglasses whose father is a diplomat in the Chinese embassy, said I was being culturally insensitive, because Chinese people were proud of Mao and what he'd done for their country. Mao had brought China from the dark ages into the modern world, he said, and who was I to go against the Chinese people?
"At that point I should have apologized and said I respect their point of view.
"Instead I chose to inquire what kind of father would make his nation take a 'Great Leap Forward' in which impoverished peasants had to turn their backyards into iron factories and melt down their pots and pans so that before you knew it no one could cook dinner anymore.
"And because that worked out so well, he tried something even crazier a couple of decades later (that's right; no term limits in Communist China), which he called the Cultural Revolution. That involved getting young people to turn against their parents and even beat them, and punishing anyone who had any formal education."
Tenth-grader Ethan Wynkoop's questioning of his World History teacher's position on Mao gains Ethan a big fan. His Chinese-American classmate Ti-Anna Chen -- named for Tiananmen Square -- is the daughter of a Chinese dissident who was exiled from China after spending hard time in prison there for advocating for the sorts of freedoms and democratic principles we often take for granted in this country. Even now, in the outskirts of Washington, DC where they live, Ti-Anna's father is being watched.
After Ethan speaks up that day, Ti-Anna approaches him, and soon Ethan and Ti-Anna become close friends. Then, as summer vacation approaches, Ti-Anna's father -- who'd been on a trip to Hong Kong -- disappears.
With Ti-Anna longing to be in Hong Kong so that she can try to learn what has happened to her beloved father, and with Ti-Anna's non-English-speaking mother paralyzed by her husband's disappearance, and with Ethan's parents gone away to an overseas conference, Ethan comes up with an insane plan involving stealing his mother's credit card, pretending to be in NYC, forging the paperwork needed for he and Ti-Anna to fly as unaccompanied minors, and taking off with her for Hong Kong.
And so they do it.
I absolutely love the pacing, the setting, and the characters in NINE DAYS. You know how they always say to "Write what you know"? Well, this one is written by a guy who knows. Washington Post editorial page editor and columnist Fred Hiatt once served with his wife as co-bureau chiefs of the Post's Northeast Asia Bureau. Hiatt's personal knowledge of the geography, culture, history, and underbelly of the exotic settings we encounter here -- in Hong Kong, in Vietnam, and in China -- causes us to be so constantly and intimately immersed in the sights, smells, and tastes of these places. And our two main characters are so powerfully real to me that my heart just about stopped a few times as they face life-threatening dangers, hunger, and sleep deprivation in their search for Ti-Anna's father. The sweet, innocent, adolescent chemistry between them is something else that is just pitch-perfect.
"To kill time, and get under some kind of roof, we visited Ho Chi Minh, though he happens to be dead.
"Ho was the Communist leader who led Vietnam in wars against the French, in the 1950s and '60s, and against the Americans, in the 1960s and '70s, eventually beating both. According to their official history, which of course is written by the Communists who still run the place, he is the beloved father of his nation -- their George Washington. Yes, just like the Chinese and Mao.
"They have him pickled and on display, in this monumental mausoleum in the middle of a parade ground in the middle of Hanoi. (Yes, just like Mao in Beijing.)"
That's Mao ze Pickle, noted my friend, when I told her about it. Which I was doing because it was one of the many things I was excited about learning from this great new piece of YA literature. 978-0385742733 250 pages Ages 12 and up