The Vagrants is Yiyun Li’s first novel. Her earlier book, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, is a collection of short stories. The praise and awards garnered by that collection has put Yiyun Li on the American literary map, no small accomplishment for a recently arrived (1996) immigrant writing her stories, not in her native Chinese, but in English, the language of her adoptive country.
Li’s story begins in Muddy River, an unsophisticated city, in 1979, about ten years away from the events at Tiananman Square. The story opens with Teacher Gu waking to the sound of his wife crying into her pillow. It is the spring equinox, “a day of equality,” Teacher Gu thinks to himself. But nothing would be quite equal again for the Gu family because “Their daughter’s life would end on this day, when neither the sun nor its shadow reigned.”
Li puts that early morning observation under her literary microscope in order for the reader to more clearly see what else is occurring. Shan Gu, a member of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, becomes a disillusioned and an outspoken counterrevolutionary, a criminal act for which she was arrested, tried and convicted. Prior to her execution, Shan was to be put on display at a public “denunciation” ceremony.
Li broadens the scope of her story to include the reactions of those in and around the neighborhood of Teacher Gu and his wife. What happen in Muddy River is a microcosm of what is happening throughout China as it comes out from under the oppressive weight of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. For those of us in the West, Li has provided a starkly intimate portrait of a provincial Chinese community poised on the edge of the China we know today.
Li takes us in and out of the lives of Bashi, a teenager living with his aged grandmother, but harboring a desire to marry a child bride. Bashi tries to befriend Tong, a young boy, newly arrived in Muddy River and Tong, in turn, is befriended by Mr. and Mrs. Hua, neighbors who give young Tong smoothed out scraps of paper on which to write his lessons. The Hua’s have no children of their own, other than the discarded girl babies they have found through the years and raised as their own. Nini, crippled by birth, is one of six children in a crowded household.
The voice of Muddy River is the familiar one of Kai, a radio personality, who is the announcer at the denunciation ceremony. Kai was a classmate of Shan Gu when they were young girls and Shan’s fate touches Kai deeply. We see the Gu’s neighbors as they move about on the day of Shan’s denunciation and execution. Kwen, the shadowy figure who is secretly hired by the Gu’s to bury their daughter’s body after the execution, engages Bashi to assist him in his task. Bashi has also befriended Nini and she, too, becomes more closely involved in the day’s events.
The political fallout from Shan’s death is far reaching. The lives of Mrs. Gu, Kai, Nini, Bashi and the Huas’ move beyond the death of a counterrevolutionary. Shan’s death beckons an awakening that cannot be halted. There will be more imprisonment and death, but there is also love, bravery and hope. Kai, too, has a denunciation ceremony. As she is led off stage, she remembers the words her father once wrote for her, “A man with a revolutionary dream is never a lonely soul.” The words evoke both finality and beginning. Li has written a remarkable novel, both epic and intimate.