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Nancy Pearl

Nancy Pearl Book Reviews for 4/20/09

Dave Beck

Leslie T. Chang is the Beijing correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. She puts a human face on the topic of global trade and industrialization in her new book about migrant workers in China. This is one of the books Nancy Pearl reviews for us this week. Nancy spoke with KUOW's Dave Beck.

For most of us, the subject of Leslie T. Chang's smoothly written "Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China" will open our eyes to a new world. It certainly did for me. Chang, who spent a decade as the Beijing correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, decided to explore the lives of two of the approximately 130 million migrant workers in China. These young people (the majority are under 30, 70% are female, and many begin their working lives in their middle teens) leave their homes in small villages and travel to one of the industrial cities that have come into being to produce China's many exports (sneakers, clothing, accessories, electronics, etc.) to the West. Both Lu Qingmin and Wu Chunming, the two young women who shared their experiences with Chang over a period of three years, migrated to the city of Dongguan (located in China's Pearl River Delta) where they found work on the assembly lines in one of the many factories there. And what a strange and difficult life it was (and still is). Girls sleep 12 to a room; your cell phone is one of your most important possessions (if not the most important), and its loss is calamitous, since it's your only contact with friends. Because you must have an identification card to get work, migrant workers often borrow and sometimes steal the cards of others, with the result that nobody knows their real names. And the work is simply endless. You live 24 hours a day (14 or more of them on the assembly lines), 7 days a week, in a factory that is enormous compared to the village you came from (Min's consisted of 90 households), and, indeed, is set up like a city to provide all your needs, from entertainment (there are movie theaters), safety (there's a fire department), and health (it has its own hospital). There are some opportunities for advancement, so the most determined and ambitious workers take classes in English and computers. Some workers bounce back and forth between factories at dizzying speed, trying to make more money and better themselves. Alongside the stories of these young women and their friends, Chang weaves the history of her own extended family's life in China and the West. Her book succeeds brilliantly in putting a human face on global trade and industrialization. These days, whenever I look at a new electronic toy that makes our wired world so much fun, I think of Min and Chunming, and the millions other like them, living lives so different from my own.

If your book group chooses to discuss "The Cure for Grief" by Nellie Hermann (and it's a choice that I would highly recommend), kick off the meeting by asking what the title means, and whether, in fact, there is a cure for grief, and if so, what it might be. I've been thinking about those questions ever since I finished this finely observed coming–of–age first novel. The events of the novel are seen through the eyes of Ruby Bronstein, as we share her life from age 8 to 20. Ruby, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor and the woman who converted to Judaism to marry him, is the youngest of four children. She adores Nathan, Aaron, and Abe — her three older brothers — but never quite feels a part of the close cadre they form. This is how Hermann describes the relationship among them: "The boys came together as if they were not three stars but a planet, and when Ruby was with them, she was a satellite moving in their gravitational pull." Each chapter is centered on a specific event in the life of the family, including the time Ruby finds a gun on the beach in Maine, her trip with her parents to Terezin, the concentration camp in Czechoslovakia where her father was imprisoned, her junior prom, two deaths, and the psychotic breakdown of one of her brothers. Hermann is an extraordinarily gifted writer, able to capture the essence of characters and situations in just a few words. (One of the Bronstein's neighbors is "a tiny girl, her skin suctioned to her bones.") Her descriptions of Ruby's adolescent angst are spot on: All those confusing feelings, and that sense of having to figure out who you are and where you belong — all of which are, for Ruby, infinitely complicated by tragedies well beyond her control or understanding. Towards the end of the book, Hermann describes Ruby's state of mind as follows: "Outside her room, the world was unknown, bizarre things were happening, illness was afoot, the house was occupied by sadness and madness and death. Inside her room, she was a senior in high school." Although few of us have suffered the quick succession of sorrows that Ruby did, grief is a part of everyone's experience. And Ruby's hard–earned understanding of the nature of the cure for her own grief may provide readers with insights into their own.

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