Women Writers Wednesday 1/28/15

This week’s review comes to us from Jennifer Waldo, who has reviewed several YA book series. (You’ll see a couple more of those posted here this year.) In this installment of our Women Writers Wednesday series, she discusses quite thoughtfully Veronica Roth’s Divergent series. (This review was originally posted on her own website last year and is reposted here with her permission.)


I just finished Allegiant, the third and final sequel in the Divergent series by Veronica Roth. It would be a disservice to give away anything that happens to the major characters, but I have to say that Roth’s writing is as brave and convention-shattering as her main characters. She demonstrates that Young Adult fiction does not have to be safe and comfortable for its audience.

DIVERGENT series books

Out of the series, I still love Divergent the best because of the newness of the world and the uncertainty and challenge facing the main character Tris as she leaves the self-effacing faction of her childhood for the most wild, dangerous, and even reckless faction for her future. The story follows the conventions of other dystopian series’ like Legend and Hunger Games but stands on its own. The second book in the series, Insurgent, explores the world that was set up to its limits and then breaks it wide open. I didn’t know what to expect from Allegiant. Story-wise, I was lost on some of the details of this second-new world where genetic testing and purity, damage and reconstruction are behind everything I thought to be true. But from a character standpoint, Roth took a leap and pushed her characters beyond anything I’ve read so far. And I realized as I was reading that I didn’t know how she was going to wrap it up. It stopped following convention. And that’s when I became afraid.

Like many of these dystopian series, the teenage girl at the center of the story makes decisions with as much logic and analysis as she can muster with a default gut-reaction in her back pocket. The young female protagonists tend to be smarter than average, aware of their own physical limits, and willing to push themselves past all those limitations when necessary. In the real world, the fact that these girls’ decisions end up being the right thing to do would be mostly due to luck, but in these series, these profound consequences are a testament to the girls’ special qualities. The message is clear: Be smart, young ladies.  Be brave.  Think before you act, don’t let emotions get the best of you. And if you must, take a leap of faith.

In the real world, those leaps of faith for a teenager are based on crazy hormonal shifts and raging emotions. While I agree with the sentiment behind these character traits, I don’t know how well they translate. Honestly, it’s confusing being a girl sometimes. I grew up with the whole-hearted belief that I could have a thrilling, passionate, demanding career in a difficult field and still have an incredibly rare marriage and perfect children that I would have time to raise and money to support. I’m not saying this isn’t possible, but as life has surprised me along the way, I have realized that the reality of this belief is not at all like the fantasy in my head. With the pressures women have to be thin, have flawless skin, be perfect and smart and strong and feminine, there is no room for error as these girls navigate into their womanhood. I think of Miley Cyrus, who in all reality is doing exactly what she should be doing as a young, passionate, creative woman. She is being vilified for not being a role model and yet rewarded for her crazy behavior with media attention and money. How will she navigate into adulthood? Obviously celebrities are a special breed, and again the translation to us normal humans is not one-to-one, but still I hope you see my point.

The most important aspect of these dystopian young adult series is that these strong female characters face dangers and actually lose something in the process. They face the compromise of life and find a way to keep living. I can’t really recall a story from my formative pre-teen/teen years that offered such a mature outlook on life and the future. The ones that come to mind all offer some kind of replacement solution, usually in the form of a man/relationship. In many ways, it’s heartbreaking to read Allegiant now, as a parent, because I don’t want to think about loss and disappointment for my own children, even though I know it’s inevitable. And worse, I know that loss, disappointment, and failure are all the best teachers to becoming a better person. They can do the opposite as well, but handing someone something on a silver platter doesn’t seem to have done much good for anyone I know. Fighting for what you want, failing and having to figure out which battle to fight, is key to understanding oneself and others.

In adult fiction, I keep my guard up as a reader, knowing that all bets are off, but in YA I tend to think there’s a safety in the genre that things will be realistic but not that real. Allegiant blew me away because it shattered all the safe promises the other series keep. What is salvaged from the wreckage of the story is true and beautiful and heartbreaking and the best thing anyone can pass on to the next generation. I literally sobbed at the end. I don’t want to leave these characters. I don’t want to admit that Roth ultimately took my expectations and used them against me, and that I played right into her gifted hands.

As a fellow writer, and one who likes to break conventions, I salute you, Veronica Roth. As a reader, you have broken my heart and mended it with the bittersweet truths of your words. Thank you.


Jennifer Waldo has been writing and directing for film and video for the last ten years, including the short video SISTERS now in post production. A lifelong writer and photographer, Jennifer began her career working in the documentary/educational film industry of her hometown, Washington, DC.  She graduated from the Quaker school Sidwell Friends and went on to earn her Bachelor of Arts with honors in English at Oberlin College. Wanting to hone her skills as a filmmaker, Jennifer spent three years earning her MFA in Film Production at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts where she won the Edward Small Directing Scholarship for her existentialist film ROOM 119 (2001) and wrote and directed her 35mm USC graduate thesis SEARCHING FOR ANGELS (2006).  After graduating USC in the spring of 2004, Jennifer’s thesis film screened at the Director’s Guild in Los Angeles as part of the April 2006 First Look Festival. Working in Houston, Texas, over the last few years, Jennifer completed a set of twelve educational videos for a local Montessori School and EVERYTHING BEGINS AT B.I.R.T.H. (2007) about non-profit organization BIRTH founded by midwives. Jennifer’s romantic comedy screenplay HONEYMOON ADVENTURERS was selected as a “Screwball Comedy” Finalist in the Broad Humor Screenplay Contest in July 2006 and her feature-length script adaptation of SEARCHING FOR ANGELS was a quarter-finalist in the 2008American Zoetrope Screenplay Contest.  In November 2008, Jennifer won the “NaNoWriMo” writing challenge with an 85,000-word novel written over a 30 day period. In addition to writing and directing, Jennifer is also a producer, most recently working on the independent feature film THE PREACHER’S DAUGHTER (2012), showing on Lifetime.  Jennifer produced several USC graduate thesis films including the festival favorites UNSYNCABLES AT ANY AGE (2003), FIST OF IRON CHEF (2004), and PEBBLES (2005), as well as the A.C.E.-sponsored HD documentary  THE CUTTING EDGE: THE MAGIC OF MOVIE EDITING (2004). Jennifer currently teaches filmmaking at Houston Community College’s Audio Recording and Filmmaking Department, Spring Branch Campus. She is also a longtime member of Women in Film in Los Angeles, California.


To see more kinds of reviews like the ones in this series, check out these blogs by Melanie Page and Lynn Kanter. And of course go to the Sappho’s Torque Books page here to see other reviews by me and by other contributors to the Women Writers Wednesday series.

The Women Writers Wednesday series seeks to highlight the contributions of women in literature by featuring excellent literature written by women authors via reviews/responses written by other women authors. If you’d like to be a contributor, wonderful! Leave a comment below or send me an email, tweet, or Facebook message with your idea.

Women Writers Wednesday 1/21/15

For this week’s Women Writers Wednesday, we have an interview between Rita Arens (the interviewer) and Margaret Dilloway (the interviewee).

photo of Margaret Dilloway by Saflower Photography
photo of Margaret Dilloway by Saflower Photography


1) How has your writing process changed (or not changed) since your first book?
I had no idea what I was doing with my first book and kind of felt my way through it. Now I’m more aware of key elements that need to go in as far as plot and character development, pacing, etc. But every time I write a book, there’s still a long stretch of time where I feel like the thoughts are trickling down through solid stone and I’m staring glassy-eyed out the window. Writing is kind of like having a baby — you cry and eat a lot and feel sick and you don’t sleep and then you hold your book and forget all the bad things that ever happened. And then you do it again, on purpose.
2) How long does it take you to write a book?
That depends on the book. I wrote THE CARE AND HANDLING OF ROSES WITH THORNS in about six weeks, and it was pretty solid. SISTERS OF HEART AND SNOW took a couple of years to get right. I worked on my middle grade book (tentatively titled XANDER MIYAMOTO AND THE LOST ISLAND OF MONSTERS) for two years or so, off and on.
3) Do you discuss your ideas with your agent before writing? 
Yes. I like to bounce ideas off him.
4) Which of your books is your favorite?
Why don’t you ask me which of my children is my favorite?! Gosh, Rita! Um, um, um. Okay. My most current one, SISTERS OF HEART AND SNOW, is actually my favorite. I feel like all the skills I’ve learned from writing came together in one giant blaze of awesome. I think it’s fun and interesting and, if I don’t say so myself, kind of deep. It’s the most entertaining, for sure. There are sharks and swords and hot librarians and deeply difficult relatives and failure and family secrets. It’s pretty much everything you could want for your reading pleasure.
5) How is children’s publishing different from adult publishing?
I think children’s publishing is actually much harder to break into. Not only do you have to impress the kids and write the awesome story they want to read (as opposed to some moral story you think they OUGHT to be reading), you have to impress all the gatekeepers: the parents and the teachers and the librarians, the folks who actually buy the books. The publishers are very mindful of this.
6) How involved are you with book marketing?
I do the social media thing and I contribute ideas to marketing and publicity, and when I have independent opportunities to promote I take ’em — but for the most part the publisher has one of the most awesome teams in the business.
7) How many books do you work on at once?
Two. I like to write one, let it sit, and work on the other as a sort of palate cleanser. That way I get some mental distance from my work and can look at it more objectively.
8) Plotter or pantser?
Kind of both. I do a not-detailed outline and then follow it and fill in the gaps. Sometimes you need to write the whole first draft to figure out what the story’s about and who the characters are.
Rita Arens is the author of contemporary young adult novel The Obvious Game (InkSpell, 2013); the co-editor of Roots: Where Food Comes From and Where It Takes Us (Open Road, 2013); and the editor of Sleep Is for the Weak (Chicago Review Press, 2013). She is also the deputy editor for www.blogher.com. Connect with Rita on Twitter @ritaarens or check out her website: www.ritaarens.com.
Margaret Dilloway’s upcoming books include Sisters of Heart and Snow (due out April 2015 from Putnam Books) and Momotaro (due out June 2016 from Disney-Hyperion Books for Children). She is the author of The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns and How to Be an American Housewife (both from Putnam Books), and her awards include Winner of the American Library Literary Tastes Award for Best Women’s Fiction (2013), Winner of the Bonus Book of the Year, Pulpwood Queens International Book Clubs (2013), and a Finalist for the John Gardner Fiction Award (2011). Check out her website at www.margaretdilloway.com.

To see more kinds of reviews like the ones in this series, check out these blogs by Melanie Page and Lynn Kanter. And of course go to the Sappho’s Torque Books page here to see other reviews by me and by other contributors to the Women Writers Wednesday series.

The Women Writers Wednesday series seeks to highlight the contributions of women in literature by featuring excellent literature written by women authors via reviews/responses written by other women authors. If you’d like to be a contributor, wonderful! Leave a comment below or send me an email, tweet, or Facebook message with your idea.

Women Writers Wednesday 1/14/15

It can be really wonderful, when we have the chance, to review a book by someone we know and care about, because we want to share what we love with the world. It’s even better when we know the author of said book because we read the book, love it, reach out, and the author (until then a stranger) reaches back.


Mom To Mom, Teacher To Teacher, Writer to Writer: A Conversation With Erin Lindsay McCabe

by Jennifer Wolfe of mamawolfe


It’s a good sign when you meet someone for the first time and you’re dressed in identical outfits. I guess Erin Lindsay McCabe and I were both more than a little excited the northern California heat had broken and jeans were finally not too hot and sticky to wear out for coffee. Our denim paired with cream-colored lace shirts and sandals, we giggled as we looked at each other in person for the first time. This synchronicity started off what would prove to be a delightful Sunday morning chatting about parenting, teaching, writing, and her latest book, I Shall Be Near To You, as we sipped organic coffee (me) and spicy chai (her) and nibbled on freshly made pumpkin muffins and bear claws. I found Erin to be as real as her Civil War character Rosetta as mom to mom, teacher to teacher, writer to writer, we filled three hours in a little bakery/coffee shop in northern California, the start of what I know will be a new friendship – mom to mom, teacher to teacher, writer to writer.

I first ‘met’ Erin when I devoured her Civil War era book, I Shall Be Near To You, over the summer. I’ll admit, I was on a historical fiction kick and jumped at hers after seeing the cover – loved it – and was enticed by the love-story angle of the title. After only a few pages, I adored the main characters, feisty Rosetta and tender Jeremiah – and knew I had to tweet the author right away:

mamawolfeto2: @ErinLindsMcCabe So excited to start#ishallbeneartoyou by @erinlindsmccabe I love Rosetta already! #books #civilwar

ErinLindsMcCabe: @mamawolfeto2 Oh I’m so glad you ❤ Rosetta! (Me too!)

mamawolfeto2: @ErinLindsMcCabe Oh yes, I’m hooked! Love how you so tenderly portrayed their ‘practice’ – refreshing #ishallbeneartoyou

ErinLindsMcCabe: @mamawolfeto2 Aw, gotta love Jeremiah too. ; )

mamawolfeto2: @ErinLindsMcCabe oh yes. He surprised me with his sweetness.

mamawolfeto2: @ErinLindsMcCabe just finished#ishallbeneartoyou Wiping away the tears. ❤️

Yes, I devoured this book…and was thrilled to meet a new author who was so eager to talk about her book, her characters, and life as a writing mom. And then life interrupted…

So on that somewhat smoky Sunday morning, inside a brightly lit café near the Sierra foothills, we picked up where we left off, and found threads of motherhood, teaching, and writing peppering our three hour conversation.


Erin Lindsay McCabe and Jennifer Wolfe


On motherhood:

I think every writer-mom wonders how a published author ever finds the time to make a book a reality. Turns out, Erin wrote the entire draft of I Shall Be Near To You before her son was born, and spent the early years of his life editing, rewriting, and submitting for publication. We talked about the writer/mom life-balance: so hard to juggle that precious time between naps and preschool and play dates, and the palpable awareness of being present during those years — all years, really — when our children are under our wings. Now working on her next novel, Erin notices an acute change in her writing/editing practice, and devoutly sticks to her ‘1,000 words-a-day’ commitment, something she credits to Anne Lamott and found enormously helpful after reading Bird By Bird. “It’s the doing,” Erin shared with me. “Start with 250 words, then 400, 500, and 1,000.”


On teaching:

I love meeting teachers, especially English teachers. They just GET my life. They understand what it’s like to balance motherhood and work, they understand how emotionally and physically draining it is to teach all day and then come home with stacks of papers to grade. Erin GETS it – she spent years working as a high school English teacher in the Bay Area, and then again as a community college writing professor. She understands the challenge of attempting to squeeze out an ounce of creativity before daybreak, or most often for her, late into the night. I had to laugh when she mentioned her good fortune that her three-year-old was a night owl — I actually craved those moments when my own two babies were tucked into bed at night and I could choose between grading and writing!

Our conversations circled around how to teach controversial novels, what was just the right amount of feedback to give students, and how we wished our kids would dig deeper into their writing and not give up with a first draft. Her inclusion of ‘hot topics’ in I Shall Be Near To You, such as homosexuality, war, young love, and even profanity have caused some controversy for a few of her readers, but for me, her choices not only provided a realistic story line and characterizations, but also shrunk the time between the Civil War and what humanity is still dealing with today. I loved making the teacher-writer connection, and her eagerness to jump right back into teacher-mode was evident when we started to chat about writing – our writing.


On writing:

Erin knew how much I adored I Shall Be Near To You before I met her, and after listening to our conversation swirl in and out of motherhood and teaching, I realized how closely woven her life was with the book and characters; it actually made me love it more! As a lover of historical fiction, I couldn’t wait to ask her how she approached the idea of historical accuracy – something I know requires not only tremendous research, but also carries with it tremendous risk that historians will dismiss her story as too fictionalized. Turns out, the idea that the story of her real-life main character, Rosetta, would be lost due to errors in historical accuracy was foremost on her mind during the writing and editing process. Erin’s choices to depict battle scenes as accurately as possible not only added depth and grittiness to the finished novel, but also were the hardest to write: after writing each battle scene she described herself as being in a ‘dark place’. She found herself attempting to balance just the right amount of detail for authenticity with the numbness that would come with an overabundance of the gore that Civil War soldiers experienced. Interestingly, she intentionally chose not to directly include slavery in the novel, feeling that after ten years of reading and researching the ‘real’ Rosetta’s letters written during the Civil War, it wasn’t part of what she recorded and therefore not authentic to the character’s story.

Our coffee drained, pastries long gone, and families wondering if we’d ever come home, Erin and I ended our mom-teacher-writer conversation with hugs and expectations: new writing, new conversations, new friendship. What a lovely morning, what a lovely writer.


I Shall Be Near To You book cover


You absolutely don’t want to miss I Shall Be Near To You, Erin Lindsay McCabe’s ‘extraordinary novel about a strong-willed woman who disguises herself as a man in order to fight beside her husband in the Union Army, inspired by the letters of a remarkable female soldier who fought in the Civil War.’ Now out in paperback!


Jennifer Wolfe is a mom and middle school teacher who loves nothing more than watching kids be brave, courageous and navigate the world. A huge believer in love, health, and hope with a colossal amount of emotionally-charged inquisitiveness – throwbacks to her youth spent watching and listening to every 80s punk band imaginable –  Jennifer attempts to simultaneously slow down and speed up time by trusting fate and the global community to teach us life’s lessons. Jennifer reflects on life’s lessons on her blog, mamawolfe, as well as on  TwitterFacebookInstagram, and Goodreads.


To see more kinds of reviews like the ones in this series, check out these blogs by Melanie Page and Lynn Kanter. And of course go to the Sappho’s Torque Books page here to see other reviews by me and by other contributors to the Women Writers Wednesday series.

The Women Writers Wednesday series seeks to highlight the contributions of women in literature by featuring excellent literature written by women authors via reviews/responses written by other women authors. If you’d like to be a contributor, wonderful! Leave a comment below or send me an email, tweet, or Facebook message with your idea.


My Writing Year in Review

When WordPress sent me their end-of-year report on the stats for my blog, I regarded it with slightly less excitement than before. Yes, my stats are good and becoming increasingly better: my blog is being read in 89 countries (though I’m sure some of that isn’t actual readers), hundreds of people are now following along here (a steady climb upward which I’m grateful for), and––though this is not reflected in the stats monkey report––I’m not beating myself up if I don’t get a post out every single week. But this report, though fun to read, shows only a fraction of what’s been going on.

In addition to the regular kinds of stand-alone posts I write, my “12 Days of Christmas Music That Doesn’t Suck” series (the 2014 edition of which begins here) was received well, overall, again this year, enough to convince me it should be an annual tradition. There have been a few posts about style for “Fashion Fridays,” and in November I launched a new series called “Women Writers Wednesdays,” in which women authors review or respond to books by other women authors. The response to that has been exceptional, and you can look for it to continue on a weekly basis through the spring.

But enough about the blog, for the moment. My biggest writing news for the past year was my publication list. I was asked to write (and did) an article about hats and high tea for the Bayou City Magazine blog last spring. I had a poem (“Stillness / Unrelenting”) appear in Waxwing and another one (“At the El Felix”) appear in the Houston Poetry Fest anthology, where I was selected as a Juried Poet again. And then, of course, there was Finis. My short novella was published in August and is now widely available at so many ebook retailers. (Look for a contest in the next couple of months in which you can win a free copy, or just hop over and pick up a copy of it now while it’s on sale for $2.99.)

And although the last few months have been inordinately busy, what with my teaching job and my family (two kids under ten years old, yo) and our being in the process of moving to a new house, I have still managed to find some time to write! Yay! Edits on the novel are coming along. I have two volumes of poetry in the editing process as well: one a rewrite of my first chapbook, Gypsies, and the other a brand-new collection, Playing House. And I’ve done the preliminary interview work and research for a non-fiction piece on cosplay that will see the light of day at some point.

Sarah Warburton and I have expanded the list of writers who join us early in the morning on weekends and we’ve formed the very official Crack of Dawn Writers’ Group. Work with my Wednesday night critique group continues along well; we’ve even added a new member this month. And perhaps most exciting of all––because it’s very new and very different––I founded the Faculty Writers’ Support Group at school, where quite a few of the authors I teach with (and you might be surprised by how many there are in such a relatively small PreK-12 independent school) get together during our free time just to sit and write in a room where other writers are sitting and writing. This has been a powerful avenue to keep us connected to our art and to our creative selves, which has made a lot of us feel more balanced and better able to be Good Teachers who are also Whole People. I have felt more connected to a community this year than ever.

All in all, I have a lot to be happy about and grateful for.

So what does 2015 have in store for me? Probably a new office, for one thing. Assuming the house move we’re working on goes through, I’ll have a room in the new place which is big enough to be an excellent space for me but too small to be a multi-function room for anything else. I am so excited about this! I’ll need a new desk, since our old house has a built-in that we will not be ripping out and taking with us. I’m in the market for a really excellent roll-top (which you might already know has been a dream of mine since childhood). I don’t have a spinning wheel or a typewriter yet, but I don’t have to decorate everything all at once. At first, my journals and other books will be ornament and personality enough for that room, as well as this sign for the door:


Thanks to Russ Linton for introducing me to this sign.
Thanks to Russ Linton for introducing me to this sign.


On the blog, this April I plan to revisit the series of poems I featured last year for National Poetry Month (which begins here) and will soon be on the lookout for poets to consider this year. Sarah and I are hopeful that our vlog will finally launch this year, also. We had some delays in getting it going this fall since my family decided to move and all time for video editing was lost. (Sorry, Sarah!)

And as for my own writing, I’m hopeful that this spring the edits of my novel will be finished and can start moving forward on the path to publication. I’m also going to try and have one of those aforementioned poetry collections ready for you; either the vastly updated release of Gypsies or the new one, Playing House, published for the first time as a whole manuscript. (Quite a few of the poems in PH have been published separately already over the last few years.)

In other fiction news, I’m going to try and work on some short stories. I have a couple of literary fiction WIPs that I’d like to finish up this year. Not only that, the response to Finis. has been so wonderful that I’m actually considering the numerous requests from readers that I expand the story. Although I don’t, at this time, expect to grow Finis. into a novel (with apologies and immense gratitude to the eleven people who emailed me or posted on my social media the first week after it came out specifically to ask me to do this, and to all the people since then who’ve asked whether that’s in the works), I have flirted with the idea of turning it into a screenplay, and even if I don’t do that, I have begun work on another story set in that world, and what follows may turn out to be a collection. Because I have fallen in love with the novel form, not just as something I have preferred reading my whole life but also now as the form I most enjoy writing in, my attention to the short story form has been less focused, less intense. I think maybe this is the year I revisit that form, so radically different from a novel, and fall in love with it again.

I have also toyed with the idea, this week, of launching a new online magazine, because I love being able to share new writers’ voices and work with others. I’m quite sure this idea will be on the back burner for a while; I don’t anticipate doing anything with it until my novel gets the all-clear from my editor. But if it comes to something, you will know about it!

I have to admit, part of me is somewhat reluctant to publish this post. Making these goals public could set me up for failure if I can’t accomplish them. But you all have been, in the main, an extremely supportive readership so far, and I like the idea of having some external accountability. So onward and upward!

Happy New Year.





Women Writers Wednesday 1/7/15

The Women Writers Wednesday series is back after a long holiday hiatus! This week I’m featuring a review of Jung Chang’s memoir Wild Swans, presented by Niva Dorell Smith. Her short bio follows the review, as does information on how to see more of this series and how to be a part of it. I’m always interested in new voices!


The next time you think or say, “This country sucks” (it’s okay, we’ve all felt this way at some point), please do yourself a favor and read Jung Chang’s debut memoir Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (Simon & Schuster, 1991). I guarantee you’ll feel differently when you finish it.


Wild Swans


In Wild Swans, Chang recalls the trajectory of her family and country from 1909 to 1978, expertly weaving the stories of three generations of Chang women with China’s historical struggle to redefine itself from feudal society to Communist super power. The result is part history lesson, part family soap opera, and entirely epic in both breadth and depth. I couldn’t put it down.

Chang begins the story with her fifteen-year-old grandmother Yu-Fang being given by her father to General Xue Zhi-Heng as a concubine. Seven years later, Yu has her one and only child, a daughter, Bao Quin, with whom she escapes from the General’s palace when Bao is a baby. Together, they live in exile for over a year until General Xue dies. His last words are that Yu be given her freedom. A short time later, Yu remarries Dr. Xia, a respected local doctor forty years her senior, who raises Bao as his own daughter and nurtures both her independent spirit and quest for knowledge.

During this time, China transitions from an empire to a republic/warlord society; the Japanese invade in the 1930s; a Communist-Kuomintang alliance leads to Japanese surrender in the mid-1940s; and a political struggle between the two victors results in the brutal Kuomintang-Communist Civil War. Chang’s mother, Bao, becomes a student leader, joins the Communist underground, and falls in love with Wang Yu, a Communist rebel leader. They marry right before the Communists prevail and General Mao Zedong establishes the People’s Republic of China.

Despite being a young couple in love, Wang Yu and Bao immediately butt heads on how to approach life, the Communist Party, and the raising of their own young family, including the author, Jung Chang, and her three siblings. Her father, Wang Yu, is a hardcore Communist who believes that being a Communist leader requires the strictest adherence to Party rules and values; in other words, no special treatment for himself or anyone in his family. Her mother, Bao, believes that a man in a position of authority should do everything he can to protect and provide for his family, even if it means making exceptions to Party rule and occasionally, secretly, questioning Party values. This conflict, which continues throughout their marriage, results in serious repercussions as both become senior officials in the Communist Party, and life becomes increasingly harsh under General Mao.

Chang writes with both emotional restraint and painstaking detail about growing up within the highest ranks of the Communist party, from walled communities to school beatings, to joining the Red Guards and watching her parents be denounced, tortured, and eventually sent to labor camps during the ten-year-long, ultra-violent Cultural Revolution. She chronicles the gradual transformation of her own psychological and emotional attachment to the almost mythical figure of General Mao, whom she loves, respects, and adores as a child and begins to question only as a young adult. Her father, though strict, earns the respect of even his fiercest enemies for remaining faithful to his principles, even when they eventually conflict with the radical Communist agenda. Her mother remains fiercely determined to fight for her loved ones, pulling every string and calling on every favor possible to protect not only her children, but also people who come to her for help.

Despite everything the family endures­­––starvation, torture, separation, forced labor, and prison camps––they manage to prevail and remain close. When Jung Chang leaves China in 1978 for London, one cannot help but share in her relief and joy at the miracle of freedom.

Whatever your thoughts about our government’s––or any government’s––being flawed, Jung Chang’s Wild Swans will illuminate unequivocally how Communist China was a thousand times worse. Families were torn apart by the regime, with neighbors turning on neighbors, children turning on parents, and parents turning on each other. Almost all symbols of Chinese history, including the majority of China’s vast art collection, were destroyed. Somewhere between fifteen and seventy million people died under Mao Zedong.

But the most painful aspect of Wild Swans is the psychological effect of living in constant fear. Jung describes a political and social environment that discourages any form of independent thinking, to the point where she no longer trusts her own thoughts. Breaking free of this psychological manipulation is not only extremely difficult but also dangerous. In Communist China your thoughts could get you arrested, tortured, and killed, and ruin your entire family for generations to come.

It is no wonder that this book is taught in colleges worldwide. Wild Swans is an unprecedented, intimate view of what it’s like to grow up in one of the most secretive and oppressive societies in the world. Only someone who experienced it first hand could have written it. Be grateful you did not.


Niva Dorell Smith is a filmmaker and freelance writer currently working on a memoir titled The History of Us. She writes regularly about grief and writing at www.ridingbitchblog.com. Follow her on Twitter @nivaladiva.

To see more kinds of reviews like the ones in this series, check out these blogs by Melanie Page and Lynn Kanter. And of course go to the Sappho’s Torque Books page here to see other reviews by me and by other contributors to the Women Writers Wednesday series.

The Women Writers Wednesday series seeks to highlight the contributions of women in literature by featuring excellent literature written by women authors via reviews/responses written by other women authors. If you’d like to be a contributor, wonderful! Leave a comment below or send me an email, tweet, or Facebook message with your idea.