No Wall Too High

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Xu Hongci may be the only man to have ever escaped one of Mao’s prisons. Others caught attempting to escape were either killed on the spot or recaptured and put in chains. Despite two previous failed attempts in a less secure prison, Hongci escaped from Mao’s darkest prison. No Wall Too High is the fascinating account of his arrest, imprisonment, and freedom.

No Wall Too High by Xu Hongci
No Wall Too High by Xu Hongci

Hongci lived his early life in exuberant support of communism, studying to become a doctor under the regime’s orders. He met and fell in love with Ximeng, despite her relationship with another man. When the regime began looking for counterrevoluntionaries in their midst, Hongci was accused of counterrevoluntionary activities and multiple affairs (because of his unseemly relationship with Ximeng). He was sentenced to an undefined period in prison, where he would be reformed through labor.

After two unsuccessful escapes from prison, he was given a six year sentence. When the end of his six years approached, he was forced to remain as a “post-sentence detainee.” During this time, he was convicted and given another twenty year sentence. He was sent to Mao’s worst prison. It was from there that he escaped permanently.

Hongci was right to become disillusioned about communism under Mao.

Hongci loved communism and believed that it could still work. However, he saw so many things that were wrong with it under Mao’s leadership. Many of the prison convictions given out were complete fabrications. The prison systems that were meant to reform those who were convicted were ineffective because many prisoners had done no wrong. There was widespread violence and starvation in China, despite the regime’s insistence that they were providing abundance to everyone. In fact, some were so starved that they resorted to cannibalism.

Hongci’s desire for life is inspiring.

In an environment that supported the decision to commit suicide, Hongci chose to live. During his escape, he made a concentrated nicotine liquid to kill himself with in case he got captured. However, he fought as hard as he could to escape because he wanted to live. He knew that the prison was planning his execution, and that staying in prison would mean death. Refusing to accept his fate, he chose to take a small window of opportunity and escape. During his trip from the prison to Mongolia, he walked for hours at a time in bad conditions. His refusal to surrender and die kept him moving.

This book gave me a lot to ponder.

Books are great entertainment. There were a lot of things in this book that were fascinating. And while I was certainly entertained, I was also stimulated by information about a world I can hardly fathom living in. No Wall Too High has given me plenty of things to think about beyond the hours I spent reading it.

It made me think about the ways in which power corrupts.

Mao’s communism allowed those in power to do unspeakable horrors. The prison guards abused those in their care. In all of his years in prison, only one prison guard he encountered helped Hongci do anything to better himself. Unfortunately, even that small good was short lived because other prison guards saw that Hongci and the other inmates were talking and learning from each other. They used their power in a way that hurt and killed the prisoners.

It made me think about the ways I use my own words.

Hongci reflected on an incident where several men were forced to carry a heavy piece of equipment over a hill. While resting, the equipment began to slip and would have fallen to where it could not be retrieved. One of the prisoners jumped in front of it and used all of his strength to prevent it from falling. However, he did not receive a single word of affirmation for his good work. During Hongci’s years in prison, the guards only used their words to tear down the prisoners instead of building them up.

That made me really think about the ways I use my own words. While it may seem “helpful” when I instruct someone else about something that may have gone wrong, if all they ever hear from me is negativity, they may lose their desire to do anything for me. If all I see (in their perspective) is what they’ve done wrong, then what motivates them to do anything right? I can motivate more with positive language than negative.

It made my “first world problems” seem pretty silly.

I have had a dreadful cold all week. My husband can attest to the fact that I have been the whiniest person in the world. Yet, I’m not suffering from a cold while living in a prison cell. I don’t have to work hard labor for nineteen hours, whether I’m healthy enough to do so or not. On Thursday I was able to go to the doctor and the pharmacy to get antibiotics to treat the infection that has developed, something that Hongci would have been unable to receive. And as much as I whine for more, I’m receiving more than enough sympathy for my cold, something Hongci would not have received any of during his imprisonment. While my cold is still annoying, it is rather cozy when I compare it to all of the problems Hongci endured.

Quick Review:

No Wall Too High was a fantastic book. Xu Hongci’s perspective of life under Mao’s dictatorship was valuable and raw. Despite my liking it, this book contained pervasive violent material. However, I do not see how Hongci could tell his story without the descriptions of violence. There was some profanity and crude language. With its different perspective, this book will make you think. Although it is a longer book, it is worth taking the time to read.

Diamonds at Dinner

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Within a few pages of starting Diamonds at Dinner, I was captivated by the story that author Hilda Newman laid out. Throughout the pages of this memoir written at the age of 97, she reflects on the memories of her early adult years working in a stately home as a lady’s maid.

Diamonds at Dinner by Hilda Newman with Tim Tate
Diamonds at Dinner by Hilda Newman with Tim Tate

In her early teenage years, Hilda’s family helped her get an apprenticeship with a seamstress. After paying the fee to allow her to learn from the seamstress and studying under her for four years, the seamstress died suddenly. At the age of nineteen, with full training as a seamstress but no job, Hilda began to work at a hotel. A friend mentioned that with her training she might make a good lady’s maid for one of the aristocracy. Intrigued and excited about this idea, she talked to her parents and wrote letters to two ladies hiring lady’s maids. When one wrote back and eventually hired her, she went to live at Croome Court. There, she became the lady’s maid for the Countess of Coventry, Nesta Donne Phillips.

She found the work to be difficult, although her new employer was kinder than many others. Despite some harsh reprimands, Hilda felt that she and the Countess had built up a bond. She even believed that the Countess had a fondness for her. When the Countess had gotten into an accident, she asked only to be attended to by Hilda while they waited on the doctor. At Christmas, Hilda received a broach from the Countess. Unfortunately, the second World War meant the end of Hilda’s working at Croome Court and the closing of that chapter in her life.

Hilda Newman’s memoir may be one of my favorites that I’ve read in a long time.

I will admit that historical biographies are not typically my favorite. If there are too many dates and names, I feel my eyes glazing over. However, this memoir captured my attention and had me enthusiastically chatting about it to my husband. While I tell him about the plots of most of the books I read, I frequently found myself saying, “This is one of the best books I’ve ever read!”

Finally, after having said that for about the fiftieth time, my husband asked exactly what made it so great. After reflecting further, I believe that four things made this memoir especially good:

  • It was excellently written. The story was organized and edited together well. I thought that the writing style was both warm and readable, which is hard to find in many memoirs. Although reading British English can sometimes take a few pages to adjust to, that is only a minor thing. By the end of the book, it ends up being part of the charm.
  • It was clean. Despite writing about the war, there was no swearing or explicit content.
  • Hilda was very lovable. There are a lot of memoirs I enjoy, despite not liking the person the memoir is about. I enjoyed this book so much more because Hilda was very easy to love. It was easy to imagine her as both the young woman my age and the 97-year-old woman writing the book.
  • The story was interesting. She wrote about a world I did not know about. Her perspectives on the wars, Hitler, and the changes in the last seventy years are so interesting because she has lived through all of those things. Even if I focus solely on her work as a lady’s maid, she wrote plenty to pique my interest.

Quick Review:

If you are looking for an interesting read about those serving the English aristocracy in the 1930’s, Diamonds at Dinner by Hilda Newman is the perfect book. It is a charming story written by a lovable woman about a very interesting time in history. Even though it handles issues like poverty and war, it does them in a clean and dignified way, making this book suitable for teens as well as adults. Best of all, the reader does not need to sacrifice good writing for good content in this book. It really is one to read.

Find Me Unafraid

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This book changed the way I think about charity work. It was not just another inspirational story about a person who did something great, but a story about two people from entirely different worlds who came together to change an African slum.

Find Me Unafraid by Kennedy Odede and Jessica Posner
Find Me Unafraid by Kennedy Odede and Jessica Posner

Kennedy was born in an African slum and Jessica was born into middle class America. Their lives couldn’t be any more different. While Jessica lived a life of relative comfort, Kennedy was beaten by his step-father. He found solace in learning from a neighbor who could afford school and a priest who would later use his trusted position to sexually abuse him. He ran away from home at the age of ten and joined a gang. He then worked hard labor and watched friends die on the streets and kill themselves from the despair they felt because of the hard lives they were living.

“There’s a theory that cycles of poverty perpetuate and self-replicate in part because of despair. People feel hopeless, and then engage in self-destructive behaviors that make that hopelessness self-fulfilling. The implication, and there’s a fair amount of evidence emerging for this, is that the way to break cycles of poverty is to give people hope–and in the largest sense, that’s what Kennedy and Jess are doing.”

Nicholas Kristof

At the age of sixteen, Kennedy used the extra twenty cents that he had to purchase a soccer ball so that the people in the community would have something positive to do. It started with a soccer ball and grew, but Kennedy’s vision of Shining Hope for Communities was born. He convinced friends and community members to “buy into” the idea that they could change their community in ways that did not cost much, if anything. They started by picking up trash and speaking out against abuse. It grew, until at the age of 23, it was a movement that provided dignified jobs for women. It was at this time that Jessica studied in Kenya for a semester and met Kennedy.

Jessica’s life changed. She fell in love with Kennedy and the slums of Kenya. She went back to America and helped Kennedy get a scholarship so he could get a college education. Together, they would eventually build a school for girls and a medical clinic. Kennedy’s knowledge of the community and Jessica’s ability to garner outside financial support made them a powerful team.

“Without mutual understanding and real community leadership, foreign-led interventions ultimately do not succeed, creating false hopes and taking advantage of the community’s vulnerability.”

Kennedy Odede

Buy-in from locals is necessary for the long-term success of works of charity.

This book broke my heart. I found myself weeping at the brokenness written in these pages, and the desire to do more about some of the things that are wrong around the world. I also became increasingly aware of how sometimes we as Americans forget that those around the world have the same intelligence and potential that we do. It is heartbreaking to think that perhaps the brightest scientists, doctors, or teachers might be dying of hunger in a slum in another part of the world because of the greed and ignorance of those in the wealthiest parts of the world.

“One of the cruelest aspects of this place is simply the wasted human potential, the brilliance and creativity that exists. It shouldn’t be impossible to break out of poverty–talent and hard work should matter–but here they don’t.”

Jessica Posner

The thing that changed me the most, though, was the idea that no matter where I go to do ministry, it is important to partner with someone who is local to the area. Ohio is not so different from the part of California where I grew up. However, there are differences. People can usually tell I did not grow up here, and there are shared histories of people who have lived here in small town Ohio for generations. Partnering with, learning from, and working alongside those who live and know the area better than I ever could will make my ministry richer than I could ever imagine.

While there might be an implied recommendation to a lot of my blog posts, I want to very explicitly recommend this book. While there is some mature content and it is heartbreaking to get through, this is one of those books that will change you. It is worth your time. Though it has not been long since I read it, I already want to read it again. Not many books make me feel like that.

A Girl Named Faithful Plum

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I picked up this charming and inspirational biography at the last minute when I realized that the book I had planned for this week’s post wasn’t going to work because it had too much graphic content for me. Though this book was an impulsive read, it was also an enjoyable one, especially compared to what I had been reading.

A Girl Named Faithful Plum by Richard Bernstein
A Girl Named Faithful Plum by Richard Bernstein

This book covers the journey of young Zhongmei Li from a rural part of China all the way to an open audition in the Beijing Dance Academy, and into her first year as a dance student there. Although the reader knows that she will make it through each trial she faces and become a famous and talented dancer, everything that young Zhongmei faces is so unbelievable that it seems that she won’t make it through.

One of the most amazing parts of this book was that Zhongmei’s journey started at the age of eleven. At such a young age, she traveled across the country, away from her family, to pursue her dream. She then worked harder than many adults (myself included) do to achieve her dream.

Zhongmei Li’s tale is one that inspires hope and hard work.

I found Zhongmei’s spirit and determination absolutely inspirational. Even though there were times where she felt like she was going to be kicked out of school for being one of the worst dancers, she did not let that stop her. Instead, she woke up early and practiced harder. She worked harder than her peers and ended up being one of the most famous dancers in China, eventually traveling to the United States where she met her husband, the author of this book.

My only complaint about this book is that it ended. I would have loved to have had such an in-depth look at the other years of her education, as well as her career and how she met and fell in love with her husband, Richard Bernstein. From the “About the Author” section, I know they also have a child together. Though her first year ended up having a happy ending, I would have loved to hear about the rest of her life.

This book was a nice light read, especially after something as heavy as The Girl Behind the Door from last week. Even though it had its tense moments, it had a happy ending and those tense moments often ended up working out in Zhongmei’s favor. It was hopeful, inspirational, and a feel-good read.