Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze, by Elizabeth Foreman Lewis, was published in 1932 by Henry Holt.
When Young Fu arrives with his mother in bustling 1920s Chungking, all he has seen of the world is the rural farming village where he has grown up. He knows nothing of city life. But the city, with its wonders and dangers, fascinates the thirteen-year-old boy, and he sets out to make the best of what it has to offer him.
Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze read much more like a modern novel than I was expecting. I suppose I was so used to the style of the 20s and 30s literature I’ve read that I thought Lewis’s writing would follow the same pattern. However, Young Fu was engaging, informative, and reminded me of more recent books such as The Golden Goblet and A Single Shard.
Perhaps the biggest flaw of the book is that it seems long, especially in the middle. Young Fu is basically a series of events in Young Fu’s life and it starts to drag about halfway through. Part of the reason for the slow pace may be that Fu is not the most interesting of characters. He also is not a particularly relatable one, at least to me—I found him a little too smug and thought he conquered things a little too easily. His condescending air, though accurate for a teenager, is very hard to take and I found it hard to feel sorry for him or root for him during the times Lewis wants us to do so.
However, historically I liked the look at the turmoil in China right before the time of WWI and the rise of the Nationalist Party and Mao. It’s not a perspective prevalent in literature and the edition of the book I read (the 75th anniversary edition) included lots of information in the back about the time period and how China was transforming as a nation in terms of technology and politics. Lewis did a good job of weaving the politic tension in and showing the conflict between the “old ways” and the “new ways.”
Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze is slow-going in the middle and I thought that Fu himself was not a particularly relatable character, but I liked the historical aspect of the novel and the way Lewis incorporated it in the novel. The writing style was evocative of a modern novel and lacked a lot of the language and stylistic choices and accompanying problems that I discovered in the earlier Newbery books. Overall, Young Fu is a deserving Newbery Medal winner—though it’s not my favorite so far.
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s
That night on Chair-Maker’s Way, Young Fu told his mother,” Today a foreign man bought a tray in our store.”
“He did not see you, I hope!”
“He did. Tang told me to carry brasses into his presence. Also, he spoke to me.” At his mother’s exclamation of fright, he reassured her, “Do not fear! He was ugly, but harmless.”