Ma is gone. I fought back tears, gripping the handle of the wheelbarrow tighter so her body wouldn’t tip out too soon. I was taking her to the river to join the other villagers who had passed. I didn’t dare look around – what if one of those bodies had surfaced, caught on a rock instead of being swept away by the current after the last rains? I could almost picture the head of some weeks-dead villager bobbing up beside me, all sunken cheeks and lifeless eyes behind paper-thin lids.
Having watched his parents die in a famine during the ‘Great Leap Forward’, Ming is left orphaned. Sharing a house with other village orphans, he must work hard to grow crops for his village and for the Communist government, with little time for himself. When the Party brings a group of city boys to work in the village, Ming forms an unlikely friend with Li, a charming, likeable city boy. Ming, taught to swim by his father, now teaches Li to swim and as they exchange their stories and their dreams they also start to wonder if there is a chance for freedom.
Freedom Swimmer is a tale of friendship set in 1960s China. Told from the dual perspectives of the two protagonists, the story explores both the effects of living under the fledgling regime, and the efforts of the freedom swimmers, people who attempted to swim from mainland China to Hong Kong, where they would find freedom.
Based on the experiences of author Wai Chim’s father, who made the freedom swim in 1973, Freedom Swimmer is a moving story.
Freedom Swimmer, by Wai Chim
Allen & Unwin, 2016