Book Bag: Novel on Cultural Revolution, Boston insider guide worth checking out today

  • “Only in Boston” details and photographs of over 100 places to see in America’s oldest major city. You’ll find well-known staples here like Faneuil Hall, Paul Revere’s house, the Old North Church and Fenway Park. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

For the Recorder
Tuesday, June 26, 2018
The invisible valley

By Su Wei

Small Beer Press


When he was a teenager growing up in southern China during the country’s Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, Su Wei was sent to the island of Hainan to work on a rubber plantation — one of millions of urban young people who were “re-educated” by doing agricultural labor, an effort pushed by Mao Zedong and the Communist Party to rid China of any vestiges of capitalism.

Wei, a bookish kid, eventually became a writer and left China in 1989; since 1997, he has taught Chinese language and literature at Yale University.

Now Small Beer Press of Easthampton has published the first English translation of Wei’s work. “The Invisible Valley” is a part-autobiographical, part-fantasy novel that’s based on Wei’s experience as a teen and young man doing agricultural work, but which also goes off in imaginative and magical directions.

Lu Beiping is a young Chinese man sent “down to the country” to do farm work; he’s assigned to a rubber plantation in the highlands of Hainan island. Almost straightaway, he encounters some weirdness: He’s married off to the ghost of the foreman’s long-deceased daughter so that the foreman’s younger son won’t be cursed in his own marriage.

Surrounded by dense, rainy forest, with topographical features with unappealing names like “Mudkettle Mountain” and “Mudclaw Creek,” and thrown amid rural people and other transplanted urbanites, Lu feels completely lost: “He had become a stranger to himself, and the world had become alien to him.”

After awhile, Lu becomes a cowherd and spends his days and nights alone in the wilderness with the animals until he meets a family of “driftfolk” — people who have fled the government and are in hiding. He also meets and falls in love with Jade, a beautiful young woman.

Lu’s adventures can be both bizarre and comical, but there are also snapshots of the violence of the Cultural Revolution, in which some historians say as many as 3 million people may have been killed by government action and many more were imprisoned, tortured, displaced or publicly shamed.

As Publishers Weekly writes of the new novel, “The superstitions and customs of the driftfolk, and the atrocities recounted by one who saw his family massacred during the Cultural Revolution, give the book’s events a sense of the mystical and menacing. Western readers will find Wei’s novel a window to an unusual moment in his nation’s history.”

“The Invisible Valley” has been translated by a former student of Su Wei, Austin Woerner, who writes in an afterword that the novel is a product of their friendship and close working relationship: “More so than most translations, this one was in fact co-created with the author, and this book is the child of our friendship.”

Only in Boston: A guide to unique locations, hidden corners and unusual objects

By Duncan J.D. Smith

Interlink Publishing Group


“Urban Explorer” Duncan J.D. Smith, a native of Sheffield, England, is a veteran travel writer, historian and photographer (and a Fellow of Britain’s Royal Geographic Society) who has developed a series of guide books detailing off-the-beaten-path places to visit in several European cities.

But in his latest work, published by Interlink Publishing Group of Northampton, Smith comes to this side of the pond for the first time to offer a detailed tour book of Boston, with history, details and photographs of over 100 places to see in America’s oldest major city.

You’ll find well-known staples here like Faneuil Hall, Paul Revere’s house, the Old North Church and Fenway Park (“Baseball is a religion for many Bostonians and the Red Sox are their saints. It seems right therefore that their place of worship is Fenway Park ...”).

But there are also chapters on places less well traveled, like a walk along Pleasure Bay and Castle Island in South Boston; a highlight of the walk is Fort Independence, originally built in the late 17th century and reportedly the inspiration for the plot of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.”

Smith also ventures across the Charles River to highlight several spots in Cambridge, including Harvard University and a number of other places with a rich history, including the Society of St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Monastery and The Longfellow House.

The latter was built by a Tory owner in 1759, requisitioned by George Washington as a headquarters during the Revolutionary War, and became the longtime home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the 1840s.