Inspired by the true story of the author’s father, who swam from mainland China to Hong Kong in search of freedom, I really enjoyed Freedom Swimmer. And yay for historical fiction, Australian YA and diversity!
Ming survived the famine that killed his parents during China’s ‘Great Leap Forward’, and lives a hard but adequate life, working in the fields with his fellow villagers.
When a group of city boys come to the village as part of a government re-education program, Ming and his friends aren’t sure what to make of the new arrivals. They’re intellectuals not used to hard labour and village life. But despite his reservations, Ming befriends a charming city boy called Li. The two couldn’t be more different, but slowly they form a bond over evening swims and dreamlike discussions.
But as the bitterness of life under the Party begins to take its toll on both boys, they begin to imagine the impossible: freedom.
The premise and historical setting
I’ve said multiple times that historical fiction is my favourite genre (at least right now) because of how it’s both an imaginative and relatable reading experience. Reading Freedom Swimmer definitely gave me this, but it particularly stood out because of the premise – how it was inspired by the incredible courage of real people who swam to Hong Kong, and of the genuine hardships they faced in mainland China. Up until now my knowledge of the Cultural Revolution has been a haphazard collection of memories of family discussions I couldn’t fully grasp, a brief understanding of the economic aspect from high school, and Mao’s Last Dancer. In other words — barely anything.
So Freedom Swimmer was an incredibly insightful way of immersing myself into this world, through the eyes of the characters and their personal challenges. Which brings me to…
The friendship and characters
Wai Chim mentioned at the launch of the Freedom Swimmer that she didn’t necessarily see it as a very political book, which intrigued me. I understand this more clearly now, after finishing it: I’d describe it as a story of courage and friendship, first and foremost.
Ming was empathetic from the first page with his resilience after losing his family to the famine, and the challenges of his life after this. His uncertainty throughout the story was nuanced and believable. The humour was also a nice touch — I’m not sure whether it was actually meant to be funny, but a line where he described himself as feeling like a “forsaken hero” with unrequited love made me laugh out loud.
Li was intriguing in a different way — how he grew throughout the story as he adjusted to his new life, became more aware, and questioned what he had believed. The friendship between him, Ming, and other characters including Tian and Fei was heart-warming to read. We really need more friendship stories in YA!
The pacing and tension
What’s interesting about the reading experience with this book is that you know right at the start — from the cover, the title, and knowing that it was based on the author’s father’s true story — what the climax would be. I liked how this created a slow-burning build-up of tension throughout the story — it somewhat reminded me of The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen (another book I love!) For most of the book, we’re not sure of how it’s going to get to that climax, but there’s always tension because we’re aware that something is going to happen at every point. It was a nice experience of connecting the dots.
In summary: this was a wonderful book, a refreshing story of friendship in a unique (for Australian YA) historical setting, and an enjoyable reading experience. Give it a read!
Recommended for fans of: Razorhurst by Justine Larbalestier, Little Paradise by Gabrielle Wang, Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee, A Night Divided by Jennifer A. Nielsen