The courtyard was still quiet so early in the morning, the neighborhood just waking as Neighbor Lau’s rooster began to crow. The air was already warm, a taste of the heat and humidity that would be unbearable by midday. Seven-year-old Tao knew he had little time to climb the kapok tree before he’d be discovered. He glanced down at the gnarled roots of the tree and felt strangely comforted, a reminder of the crooked ginger roots his ma ma
sliced and boiled into strong teas for her headaches, or when his ba ba
complained of indigestion.
Tao wasn’t afraid as he shimmied up the kapok tree’s slender trunk toward the broad branches, avoiding thorns on the spiny offshoots of the same tree his father had climbed as a boy, his heart thumping in excitement at the idea of seeing White Cloud Mountain from up so high. From the time he was two, his father would lift him up to look out his bedroom window, or from the second-floor balcony, as they searched for the mountain in the far distance. His ba ba
always told him that if he looked hard enough, he could see all of Guangzhou and as far away as White Cloud Mountain on a clear day. With its thirty peaks, the mountain was a magical place for him, and his eyes watered with an effort to glimpse just a shadow of an elusive peak.
Tao could still feel the rough stubble of his father’s cheek against his, like the scratchy military blankets they used at school during naptime when he was younger. But last July, just before his sixth birthday, everything changed. Angry voices filled the courtyard early one morning, his father’s voice rising above them all, followed by the sound of scuffling. He looked out the window to see his ba ba
’s hands bound behind his back as he was dragged away by two unsmiling policemen in drab green uniforms. He saw his grandfather trying to push closer to his father, only to be roughly shoved back by one of the policemen. “Where are you taking him?” his mother’s lone voice cried out from the gate. But all he heard was a roar of the Jeep, and then they were gone.
After his father was taken away, when his mother and grandfather thought he was still asleep, Tao heard their low whispers, but when he made his way downstairs, the whispering had stopped. He saw his mother crying and his grandfather sitting in the shadows as still as stone. He wanted them to answer all his questions. “Where did ba ba
go? Why did those men take him away? When will he come home again?”
Before he could say a word, his mother pulled him toward her and hugged him. “Ba ba
had to go away for a little while,” she told him. He smelled the mix of sweat and the scent of boiled herbs in her hair and on her clothes and he blurted out, “Why didn’t ba ba
tell me he had to go away?” But she held tightly on to him and a strange sound came from her throat. Only then did he understand his father was really gone and his questions would remain unanswered. He squeezed his eyes shut so he couldn’t see her crying.
From that day on, his father was no longer there to tell him about White Cloud Mountain. At first Tao was scared and confused, wanting only to feel his ba ba
’s warmth beside him and to hear his laughter coming from the courtyard. Tao searched for his father in all the places they had gone together: down by the tree-lined canal, through the alleyways that separated the redbrick apartment buildings,
"I was following this family almost as though it were my own and stayed all the way to the end of their story." —All Things Considered, NPR
"The tenderness [Tsukiyama] shows for her characters creates a sympathetic portrait of intellectuals trying to live honestly in the shadow of oppression." —Publishers Weekly
“Tsukiyama’s close attention to detail and descriptive language paint a vivid picture of the daily life of Kai Ying and her family. Tsukiyama gently envelops the reader into the quiet sadness that permeates the entire household while weaving in the multiple hardships the family faces under communism. Strength of community; support and love of family, both natural and adopted; and the ability to heal and overcome loss are major themes within the moving novel.” —Booklist
"Best-selling author Gail Tsukiyama, recipient of PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award, takes us back to those times not by painting a panorama but in her thoughtful and forthright way by showing the consequences for one family." —Library Journal