A lyrical novel set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution that follows a father’s quest to reunite his family before his precocious daughter’s momentous birthday, which Garth Greenwell calls “one of the most beautiful debuts I’ve read in years.”
“A beautifully written, poignant exploration of family, art, culture, immigration, and most of all, love.” —Jean Kwok, author of Searching for Sylvie Lee and Girl in Translation
How many times in life can we start over without losing ourselves?
In the summer of 1986, in a small Chinese village, ten-year-old Junie receives a momentous letter from her parents, who had left for America years ago: her father promises to return home and collect her by her twelfth birthday. But Junie’s growing determination to stay put in the idyllic countryside with her beloved grandparents threatens to derail her family’s shared future.
What Junie doesn’t know is that her parents, Momo and Cassia, are newly estranged from one another in their adopted country, each holding close private tragedies and histories from the tumultuous years of their youth during China’s Cultural Revolution. While Momo grapples anew with his deferred musical ambitions and dreams for Junie’s future in America, Cassia finally begins to wrestle with a shocking act of brutality from years ago. In order for Momo to fulfill his promise, he must make one last desperate attempt to reunite all three members of the family before Junie’s birthday—even if it means bringing painful family secrets to light.
Swimming Back to Trout River weaves together the stories of Junie, Momo, Cassia, and Dawn—a talented violinist from Momo’s past—while depicting their heartbreak and resilience, tenderly revealing the hope, compromises, and abiding ingenuity that make up the lives of immigrants. Feng’s debut is “filled with tragedy yet touched with life-affirming passion” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review), and “Feng weaves a plot both surprising and inevitable, with not a word to spare” (Booklist, starred review).
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|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
|Product dimensions:||5.80(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.10(d)|
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Two Children of Trout River THE TRAIN THAT WAS DELIVERING Junie to Trout River was just pulling out of the station and gathering speed, and already the compartment was filling up with cigarette smoke and the gregarious sound of sunflower seeds being cracked open. This was 1981, when trips traversing the length of China took days, and the passengers, having waited for that first lurch of the train, now sprang into action. They poured each other hot water for tea from a communal thermos stabilized inside a metal ring beneath the window where Junie sat on the lap of her mother, Cassia.
Cassia too was set into motion in her own way. She began to tell Junie over and over again to listen to her grandparents, as if some urgent and collaborative task awaited them at the end of the journey. The cadence of that litany—listen to them, they know what’s good for you—merged with the rhythmic rattle of the train until the two sounds became indistinguishable. To Junie, who was five and wasn’t otherwise prone to premonitions of loss, it seemed as though something unprecedented was about to happen, and it made her almost afraid, until the scenery outside the window began to change. Junie had never seen so many dewy rivers and paddies, or so many trembling shades of green, and they exerted a tug on her that the snowy landscapes of her birthplace had never done.
Throughout their trip, passengers in adjacent bunks, noticing Junie’s empty trouser legs, asked Cassia about them, believing themselves to be striking up a conversation with a somber woman who needed company. But Cassia pretended not to hear them, and after this happened a couple of times, no one asked again.
She knew that if her husband Momo were here, he would never ignore these proddings. He always educated his inquisitors, sometimes even chided them in outbursts, saying something like, Many forms of human locomotion are possible.
Momo was a believer in possibilities. That was the best thing about him, but also the worst.
Earlier that year, Momo left for graduate school in America, and it was understood that in a year or two Cassia would follow. The night before his departure, he managed to borrow a violin that someone, somewhere, had made into a size that fit a child’s fingers.
It seemed to Cassia that an absurd amount of craft went into making such a miniature instrument—something that even for adults was a luxury, and even contraband not long ago, during the Cultural Revolution. The fact that it was made in the first place presumed a kind of child prodigy who would, against all odds, make all this arcane skill worthwhile.
But Momo didn’t think it absurd, and his impending absence from Junie only made him more determined to start her on music—not just any kind of music, but the kind that had shaped him in his university years in a way Cassia didn’t fully understand. In the wee hours of the morning before his departure, he insisted on giving Junie a last-minute violin lesson. After some cajoling and a tussle, it ended in a tantrum and tears. Cassia thought his desperation pitiable—what had he been thinking?? But she also knew she could never match his aspirations for their daughter, who was born with nothing below her knees—no tibias, no feet. Where her legs ended, the skin was smooth and the shapes perfectly rounded and unapologetic.
But Cassia rarely touched her there.
Unlike Momo, right now, she was determined to accomplish something very practical: to deliver Junie into the hands of her in-laws, to ensconce Junie in Trout River where Momo had grown up, and to make herself dispensable as a guardian. Whatever Junie would become—and Cassia could not fathom it any more than she could her own future—it had to start with this.
Outside the rattling train compartment, the gleaming railroad tracks merged and separated like undulating steel snakes. She pressed her mouth close to Junie’s ear, as if she was sharing a conspiracy with her: “Remember that time when your dad was little and Grandma thought a tiger snatched him up?”
Junie’s eyes lit up with laughter, as if she’d been reminded of a successful stunt pulled off by someone her age.
“Don’t laugh,” Cassia said. “Promise to never make your grandparents worried like that.”
Before they boarded the train, Cassia had scraped her memory for tidbits from Momo’s boyhood—things they’d talked about during their courtship and the early years of marriage. She was planning to impart these tidbits to Junie, through repetition and review, to allow for a seamless transition into this new ecosystem and new life.
She knew she had a lot to compete with—the scenery outside, the chatter and laughter of strangers inside. Over the rest of the journey, she began to take more liberties with the stories, until they became expansive like a rustic saga. It now involved not just tigers (too remote and menacing) but also sparrows (which he caught during the lean years), plus a river turtle that he befriended (to show Junie that not all animals were food).
It was the closest Cassia had felt to Momo in a long time. After all, wasn’t it true that to love someone is to figure out how to tell yourself their story? She could almost see him in his prepubescence, running through the feral paths and brimming with vitality that had no place to go. When she imagined him like this, unformed and far from invincible, it was much easier to forgive him for his absurd optimism.
As the train trundled south and crossed first the Yellow River, then the Yangtze, and eventually entered the long mountain tunnel toward Trout River, Cassia even thought that this was how the two of them might start over, if starting over was still possible.
On the day that Cassia was to return up north without Junie, she took a walk over a stone bridge with Junie riding on her back. It was autumn, and underneath them, the river that gave the small town its name gurgled with shifting pitches and rhythms in a way that Junie thought resembled singing. She shook Cassia’s shoulder to point this out, but Cassia did not seem to relish the river, or anything at all.
Cassia stood out against the fluid movements and chatter of Junie’s grandparents, more like a dam than a rampart. Junie could see that something about Cassia made her not belong in Trout River. But the way the world was laid out here amid the water and leaves made sense to Junie in a way that life with Momo and Cassia did not—for example, how Cassia was always worried about something they couldn’t see. Or the way Momo pressed Junie’s fingers down on the cold violin strings even though she told him it hurt—and the way he got angry when she fought off The Violin Monster and broke it by accident.
For the time being—this was what the adults all said about her being here, but Junie didn’t think that this was a temporary arrangement. She heard this in Cassia’s tone, in the urgency and finality of her admonition: They know what’s good for you.
Junie did not cry when they said good-bye to Cassia.
That night when she began life with her grandparents, Junie watched Grandpa wash his feet before going to bed. For most of his life, Grandpa had been a carpenter and tinkerer, though only his age, and not his occupation, was evident from his submerged feet.
Junie scooted over toward him on her knees, reached into the well-worn tub where his feet were planted, and poked at the gnarled sinews and bones in them.
“Your legs grew roots, Grandpa,” Junie said, “like those trees by the river!”
He looked at her, then down at his own feet.
“Do you think my legs will grow roots like yours, when I’m older?”
Grandpa now looked over at Grandma, and the look they exchanged was one passed between long-married couples that allowed them to synchronize backstories and action plans. Grandma shuffled over to scoop up Junie from the floor. She plopped her down onto her knees.
“It doesn’t work like that,” she told Junie, but the question seemed to have put her in a pensive, though cheerful, mood. As Grandpa dried his feet, she told Junie that the universe was full of transformations, some of which we could see, but most of which we couldn’t. She said that the philosopher-poets from ages ago talked about zaohua, the Fashioner of Creatures, the Shaping Mutator, the unseen forces that turned animals into plants, minerals into animals, and people into anything imaginable. These metamorphoses were more creative than we can put names to, because they erased forms but invented new ones too.
Yes, Grandma answered, the philosopher-poets thought that a person could turn into a cricket’s arm.
Yes, maybe even a mouse’s liver!—in a manner of speaking.
“But the idea is that we don’t always know, you see, what the Great Transformation will turn us into,” she told Junie.
It would be years before Junie could fully understand what this meant.
Seven, to be exact.
Near the center of the village, the river changed all year long. Sometimes the current had a palpable heaviness to its texture and its sound too. Sometimes the river was so flat and opaque that when she rode on the back seat of Grandpa’s bicycle as they crossed the stone bridge, Junie could imagine tossing a pebble at it and thought it just might glide clear across the surface. At other times, her eyes got caught by some boy her age squatting at the river’s edge, slapping a twig in the water and watching the splashes rise up and disappear into the channel.
Who can say how a child puts down tiny, imperceptible roots in a place? For some, it might have been years of walking barefoot in the damp mountains, from the mud that caked their feet and seeped under their fingernails. Or it might have been from the shifting currents of moisture and breeze, the smell of fungi and moss in their wake, the patterns of leaf fall and resprouting, the regeneration and degeneration of matters vegetal and mineral as they endlessly passed through now one life, now another, until all this became something more than chance, something that imprinted its mark on a child.
Junie’s grandparents taught her to read and write at home, and on summer nights the constellations supplied lessons in history and literature. The year she turned ten, Grandpa found one day he could no longer climb the bamboo ladder to the attic with Junie on his back. So he put her down and climbed up himself, his legs shaky but unafraid. In the attic, he gathered a few of his old carpenter tools and brought them down. The ladder squeaked pliantly under his weight.
He made a kind of rocking horse fitted with four large wheels salvaged from a trolley. Then he carved out two wooden poles of the right length and girth so that Junie could sit astride the wooden horse and propel herself forward with them. The horse shape was to distract her from the fact that it moved without agility or speed. He didn’t like the idea of her getting around too far.
Three shallow steps separated the corridor outside their room in the Soviet-style apartment building from the communal courtyard, and Junie soon figured out a way to get down those steps on the wooden horse, by holding on to the banisters and letting the thick wheels bounce down one by one.
From time to time, Junie still asked her grandparents to tell her the story of Momo and the tiger, and they obliged her.
“He’s always hated taking naps,” Grandma said. “He’d just run out and play.”
“So that day when we couldn’t find him in the usual places in the afternoon,” Grandpa piped up, “we remembered the rumors of tigers coming into the village.”
“There was just one, right?” Junie asked, even though she knew the answer already.
“Oh it was a tiger couple,” Grandpa said. “Possibly newlyweds.”
Grandma rolled her eyes.
“Homeless because they set off all that dynamite in the cliffs,” Junie said. She knew that this all led to the concrete-walled apartment they were living in now, and the train station too.
“We got all the neighbors out to look for him,” Grandpa continued, “for hours.”
Junie now held her breath for the best part.
“Then, before supper, someone spotted a rabbit hole in the fence, and if you squatted down and peered into it, there he was—”
“Asleep in our neighbor’s garden!” It was Grandpa’s turn to roll his eyes.
“With a small bunch of flowers in his hand,” said Grandma, “and sunburned cheeks.”
Junie released her breath, and a giggle came out with it. It was as if she reached into a hiding place for a favorite toy and found it was still there.
“Momo was too skinny for tiger food anyhow,” she said. Junie expected Grandma to correct her, to tell her to use the proper address of “dad” instead. But this time all she said was, “Well, he was skinny, all right.”
Grandma could not tell Junie that she hadn’t expected Momo to survive his childhood. He was born, whimpering instead of bawling, into a world where Japanese bombs flattened buildings and turned electric wires into clotheslines for severed human limbs. What little hair he had on his crown was the color of dilute tea instead of the normal black. It was as if his hair exhausted itself just pushing out of his scalp, then simply gave up. Grandma knew that even hearty children were plucked off quickly in those years, and she didn’t expect better odds for their sickliest-looking son. She delayed naming him for as long as they could, and then simply called him Momo, meaning “no hair.”
On the day that the news of Japan’s surrender reached them, a pernicious fever and dysentery was making an all-out assault on Momo’s small body. All day he purged all the liquid inside him, his eyes shut against the world, until there seemed to be nothing left to purge. Neighbors came to them with the news of the war being over, but Grandma refused to be consoled that day. Thinking it was for the last time, she sat with Momo on a stool and called out his name. A temporary name for a borrowed child. Momo, Momo, Stinking-Momo, Pooping-Momo, she muttered over and over, rocking back and forth, while halfway across the world, confetti rained down onto the pavement as couples embraced and kissed.
Besides that fever and the scare with the tigers, Momo had other mishaps that—even in retrospect—brought a clenching to his mother’s heart. Like that summer night when they slept on the roof and Momo rolled off the edge of it in his sleep. The house was low—nothing like the buildings they lived in now—but still.
Even by the time he took the name with him to school as his official name, now written with more dignified characters, she still touched him differently from the way she did her other sons. It was the kind of touch that was tender yet ready for a parting.
The family never took note of anyone’s birthday—that is, apart from the beginning of each lunar year, when all the children were told they were now a year older. But the day Momo turned twelve, she beckoned him into the kitchen when the other boys were away, and handed him a small bowl of broth. It was an old tradition in those parts, though now mostly forgotten: soup of a small hen for a boy, a small rooster for a girl.
“You have to keep it a secret,” she told him.
“Did something happen to one of our hens?” Momo leaned his face into the bowl. Ordinarily, chickens were too precious to be food.
“To mark a gateway in your life,” she said. Then she added, “And because now I can stop worrying about you... growing up.”
Momo’s first mouthful made him squint, from the scalding temperature but also from the taste for which he had no words. She didn’t know that well after the taste vanished from his tongue, he carried around the bright sustenance of the broth for days. As for the peculiar feeling of milestones, it stayed with him into his adolescence, adulthood, and eventually into his fatherhood, when he understood that a child’s birthday was the most fleeting of milestones, when a parent could take the briefest recess on the long road of setting another life into motion.
On an August night in 1986, there had been a power outage in Trout River, and from sundown, a taper candle lit the room where Junie and her grandparents slept. As was their habit during that stifling time of the year, they abandoned the large bed they shared and instead moved to a bamboo mat in the middle of the concrete floor. In one corner of the room, a coil of mosquito-repellant incense was burning—a green galaxy shape with one of its ends glowing orange—and now it was shedding its third spiral trail of ashes on the floor, a timekeeper for the dwindling night.
Over their decades of life together, Junie’s grandparents had perfected a way of talking to each other in the dark, point counterpoint, and in a volume just below the threshold of waking up nearby children. The thoughts spun out this way sometimes went in separate directions, but they always found ways to intersect and stay in motion. They had talked in this way as their three sons grew up and as they left for other places, one by one, with families of their own. But these days, as the couple’s world shrank due to the tightening rein of old age, more often they talked about Junie; about Momo, who was the most far-flung of them all; and about Cassia, who they feared was slowly unraveling in America because she’d never written to them since arriving there. The only signal of her presence came at the tail end of Momo’s letters, where he always added something perfunctory about Cassia sending her greetings.
“It was a mistake to not let her see the baby,” Grandma said.
It was the first and only time she had summoned this thought aloud, something long dispatched into the abyss of Things Families Don’t Talk About. But tonight the oppressive heat made her mind less cautious, and it roved far and wide into the realms of What Was, What Will Be, and, along with it, What Might Have Been.
Beside her, Grandpa squinted as if trying to focus on something emerging from the darkness. With one hand, he flapped a fan over Junie’s sleeping body. With the other hand, he reached inside his mouth and tried to wiggle a decaying tooth loose. He knew that like the mosquito incense, the number of one’s remaining teeth was a kind of timekeeper too.
“What would have been the use?” he mumbled. “The ashes, that child—wasn’t even enough of it to fill up a can.”
The next morning, when the troublesome letter arrived, Junie woke up alone on the bamboo mat and found that it had imprinted its woven texture onto the skin of her arm. As she sat up and rubbed her eyes, the day’s moist breath was already waiting for her.
Junie washed her face and climbed onto her wooden horse to look for her grandparents, who turned out to be in the courtyard fetching water from the well. Grandpa hovered over the rim with an aluminum bucket tied to a rope, and flicked his wrist to plunge it bottom-up into the well, at the exact angle for its mouth to scoop up the water. With another tug and several pulls, the bucket was back in his hands, now heavy with its new charge. He poured the subterranean water into one basin to keep a watermelon chilled until the afternoon, and then into another containing vegetables Grandma was washing for lunch.
To Junie, this flow of movement and liquid sounds had a whiff of eternity about it, like a melody that you knew would eventually come back to itself and said that the world would always be just so.
The well was off-limits to Junie, of course, and she was only allowed to stand at a distance deemed safe by adults who’d seen how easily any body of water could swallow even an able-bodied child. But even just looking on from her vantage point on the wooden horse, the known world was somehow made intelligible by water, be it the well connected to the river, or the rain that always fell incessantly in the sixth month, or even the exhalation in the noonday air, which brought smells of vines and mushrooms from places she couldn’t see.
“There’s a letter from your dad and mom today,” Grandpa looked up to say. He hadn’t waited for Junie to ride with him to the market this morning.
Over the past five years, these letters came to Trout River in envelopes bearing stamps of foreign men with large foreheads. Junie read these letters out loud with her grandparents, but their content perplexed her. (Momo’s doctoral stipend got renewed; Cassia just arrived in San Francisco.) They were splices and pieces, with their connective threads missing.
Today when they cut open the envelope just before lunch, they found that inside, Momo included a separate sheet of paper addressed “Dear Junie,” the first time she had been singled out this way:
I promise you that we will be reunited here by your twelfth birthday—just a year and a half away! Turning twelve is a milestone in a person’s life, and we will celebrate it all together.
For emphasis, he’d put dots under the two characters for the word “promise,” as if this had been a request on her part that he was granting.
Reunited—there? Junie looked up from the letter and sought the eyes of her grandparents, but their faces portrayed neither surprise nor confusion.
“They mean for me to visit, right?” Junie said. “Not to live with them there?”
There was a pause before Grandma answered: “Your mom and dad want to raise you themselves.”
The sound of the cicadas outside rose in volume and seemed to drift into a minor key.
“But why can’t I live here with you? Momo grew up here.”
A look passed between her grandparents. “Someday Grandpa and I will get old, you see, and won’t be able to take care of you.”
It was as if the world was going off-kilter, rearranging itself around her, without her. Junie had never thought that at some point in the future, she would sit down with her grandparents around this table for the last time.
“Then I will take care of both of you,” she said, “when you get old.”
Grandma began shaking her head as if she’d come to the limit of her explanatory powers, but she really hadn’t explained anything at all, Junie thought. They were asking her to submit to an order of things that she could not uphold as real.
Her grandparents cleared the table and put the leftover food under a mesh dome to keep the flies away. It was now that time of day when villagers young and old took noonday naps in any position and on any convenient surface available—tables, benches, chairs. Junie and her grandparents lay down on the bamboo mat on the concrete floor together. But Junie lay awake with a tightening feeling in her chest, like a knot that was drawing taut but was also trying to explode too.
The about-to-explode knot said: There’s a world out there trying to lay claim on you. What are you going to do about it?
She waited until she heard her grandparents snoring beside her, then rose from the mat, and scooted quickly on her knees to reach her wooden horse. She knew she didn’t have a lot of time. She propelled herself out the door as quietly as she could. She bounced softly down the steps into the courtyard.
One. Two. Three.
When Grandpa woke up and saw Junie missing, the first thing he did was rush to the well. He leaned into its opening and looked. Once he was certain there was nothing in the water, he gripped the rim of the well tightly with both hands, and rested like that for a moment with his eyes closed.
He hopped on his bicycle and headed toward the fields. Pedaling his bicycle as if gravity was an on-again, off-again thing, Grandpa called out every fifty meters.
The rattle of the metal chains from his bicycle traveled up the dirt road that separated them. In between came the white noise of the rustling trees and the minor key of the cicadas.
He now recognized his mistake, the design flaw in Junie’s wooden horse. He had made it to be slow moving, because he recognized in his granddaughter a monkey-like impatience that had been in his son. But he should have made it noisy too, to signal motion. Now he was racing against the lengthening of the afternoon shadows, and if he lost the race, the night that followed would be interminable.
He pointed his bicycle toward the river. By now he was calling out her name without pause.
Junie hadn’t counted on the terrain having so many nooks and crannies that made it harder to propel her wooden horse than on the concrete floor at home. Worse, when she pushed too hard with the wooden poles, one of them snapped, and the remaining piece was too short, so she always ended up veering in the wrong direction.
She made it to the middle of an abandoned field and finally scooted off the wooden horse and sat on the ground. Sweat dripped down her neck, and she muddied herself more every time she took her hand away from the ground to wipe off the sweat.
Junie closed her eyes and imagined herself in the well, with its deliciously cool subterranean water. But it was the river she had to reach, and she wanted to reach it soon, because it seemed like the only hope she had for keeping her world just the way it had been, just the way it should be.
She fought the urge to lay down her head on the ground for a momentary rest.
The rattle of her grandfather’s bicycle came to Junie as if in a dream, and startled her awake. She lifted her head off the ground like a woodland animal, and held her breath. Then the call of her name came, across the field between her home and the river, like a growing whisper.
She summoned all her strength to answer—I’m here, I’m here—then, screwing shut her eyes, began to cry with a vehemence that surprised even her.
For days afterward, the villagers who lived around that field talked about how wrenching that child’s cry was. Mothers instinctively glanced at their children, as if to make sure they were still where they ought to be.
When Grandpa came and snatched Junie up in his arms, it was quite some time before she could make herself understood.
“I don’t want to go anywhere,” she mumbled between spasms of breath. “I want to stay here with you and Grandma, even when you are old, forever and ever—”
Grandpa started to shake his head when he heard the word “forever,” but he saw Junie’s fever-red cheeks and stopped himself.
“If you send me away, I’ll turn,” she told him.
Grandpa stared at her.
“I’ll turn into a fish and swim back here,” she said, pointing to the direction of the river, “from America!”
“From the river?”
“I’ll learn to swim for a long way,” Junie said. She’d seen America on a map, and it was across an expanse of textured blue. But what was an ocean, after all, but a bigger body of water? And didn’t adults say that all rivers drained into the sea?
“We are just going home right now,” Grandpa said finally. “Just going home.”
It wasn’t the answer Junie wanted, but something of her earlier resolve slackened when she heard him say this.
Grandpa put Junie on the back seat of his bicycle and pushed off. As they rode away, neither Junie nor Grandpa mentioned the wooden horse they left behind in the field. It was as if they agreed that it had outlived its purpose.
Junie rested her hiccuping head against Grandpa’s bony back as he pedaled on the bumpy road, wobbling and clanking. Across the thin fabric of his sweat-soaked shirt and against Junie’s cheek, his ribs rose and fell with his breathing. She recognized that moment as the beginning and the end of something—though she was too young to say exactly what that something was. But she knew, without really knowing she did, that the gossamer threads we put out into the world turned into filaments, and filaments into tendrils, and that what people called destiny was really the outward contours of billions of these tendrils, as they exerted their tug on each of us.
Junie had many questions. About the child who put ashes in a can, for example, which she overheard Grandpa say last night. Bone ashes. But for now, what she thought first and foremost was that she didn’t know anything about Momo at all, not even as a child her own age many years ago. The tiger story was just a fairy tale, a nice yarn. All of a sudden she found herself too old for this kind of story, because it explained nothing at all, like why he had to leave and go so far away from here, and why he wanted to take her away too.
Behind them, toward a point on the horizon where everything would vanish into the curvature of the earth, the field turned from green to indigo.