by Janie Chang
“At first, she had found humans’ hopefulness endearing. Valiant even. Now she couldn’t begin to count all the ways they managed to delude themselves.”
In the fall of 1937, Hu Lian hopes to somehow get from Nanking to Shanghai to reunite with her mother, her only living relative. However, the Japanese bombing of Nanking throws off her travel plans, and instead Lian finds herself evacuating Minghua University with her fellow remaining students. On foot, they will make the arduous trek from Nanking inland to Chengtu, where they will establish an interim wartime campus. The students of Minghua also have a special charge; they will carry with them the Library of Legends, more than a hundred volumes of ancient stories that were once part of a larger encyclopedia. They will need to preserve this heritage while also continuing their education on the road, so that they can become the generation that rebuilds post-war China. However, politics are simmering among the students as old families with Nationalist loyalties come up against the rising ideals of the young Communist Party of China and the journey will not be without its dangers.
The Library of Legends takes place between 1937 and 1938, in the early days of the Japanese occupation of China. The evacuation of the universities of Nanking takes place in September 1937, about two months before the eventual Nanking Massacre. While many young people are joining the war effort, China’s university students are encouraged to preserve the country’s cultural heritage and intellectual future by remaining in school, training to eventually become the generation that will rebuild China after the invaders are repelled. The story is inspired by true events, and Chang’s father was among the university students who made the inland trek to escape Japanese bombers while struggling to continue their educations. However, Chang also brings a fantasy element to the narrative, telling the tale of how gods, spirits, and creatures of legend are making a westward trek of their own to the Kunlun mountains, where the Queen Mother of Heaven has thrown open the gates—but only for a short time. Soon things that were once real will pass into the realm of legend forever, and the world will become a little more mundane.
Using third person point of view, Chang follows Hu Lian, but also her wealthy classmate Liu Shaoming and a number of other characters, including Professor Kang, who is leading their group of students to Chengtu. While I enjoyed both the historical and fantastical plots that commingle in the novel, I struggled with the narration. It created a certain distance from the characters, and also had a tendency to switch at unexpected moments. Sometimes it would focus in on a minor character who had only just walked into the narrative and then leave just as abruptly. In these moments, I felt that Chang was trying to give a glimpse of the broader war experience happening outside the university group, but these additions tended to disrupt the flow of the main narrative. Interestingly, Chang mentions in the author’s note at the end of the book the she struggled with the point of view while writing the novel.
I had expected the book might incorporate myths from the Library of Legends into the story, but Chang only invents the story of the Willow Star and the Prince, loosely based on the Chinese myth of the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl. The Willow Star made a bargain with the Queen Mother of Heaven for her Prince to be reborn again and again, but only if he remembers their love in his new incarnation can he join her in the heavens. Instead of just stories within stories, the fantastical element is actually much more real than what I had been expecting. Among the servants of Minghua University is an immortal being, who has dedicated herself to helping guide the students and faculty to safety, along with their precious treasure. Along the way she meets other immortals, though most of the humans cannot recognize them as such. She carries with her the message that the gates are open, but that when they close, they will close forever. The guardians are leaving this world, and with this comes the melancholy sense that China will never be the same again.
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