In 1973, when Wenguang Huang’s grandmother turned seventy-one years old, she began obsessing over her impending death; she wanted to be buried next to her husband in the countryside. There was only one problem: she lived with her only son and his family in Xi’an, China under Mao’s rule. Traditional Chinese rituals were spurned, and burials were strictly forbidden. All who died were required to be cremated, no exceptions. For a traditional woman who desperately wanted to be reunited with her husband in the afterlife, cremation was out of the question. After much manipulation, she pressured her loyal only son into promising that the family would bury her when the time came. Thus began a tense period that would shape the Huang family forever.
Once Huang’s father agreed to the burial, and intricate web of plans had to be organized, as everything had to move efficiently — and secretly — once the grandmother died. In a time when one’s life could be ruined even by suspicion for breaking Communist rules, the entire family lived in constant fear of being discovered. Proper materials needed to be secured to build a traditional coffin, and someone who knew how to build coffins had to be hired. People had to hired to sew traditional funeral attire, as well as to help the family move the body out of Xi’an; more people still had to be brought on to help with the actual burial. The risk of grew exponentially as more people found out about what the Huang family had planned.
Naturally, it all took a toll on the family. The author was nine years old when he began sleeping with a coffin in his room, and it wasn’t long before he, too, began obsessing about death. The children’s social life was tricky, since they couldn’t bring any of their friends to the apartment — the risk was too high. The strain between the adults was probably the worst: Huang’s grandmother and his mother were always at odds, and the grandmother went out of her way to exaggerate lies about how her son wasn’t being properly taken care of. His parents’ relationship was also strained; with each paycheck, his father religiously stored money away for the burial while sacrificing household needs and desires. The entire family had to change to accommodate death and burial plans, not realizing that this planning would consume the next fifteen years of their lives.
I really loved this memoir. It has it all: an unusual premise, straightforward but lovely storytelling, tension, suspense, history, and an in-depth immersion into completely different cultural ideals. Though Huang was the author, this book really is a family memoir in the truest sense, as he illustrates the ways that the different members of the family were changed by this period in their lives. And while all of this was happening, China was also in turmoil, so there was also an eventual clash between traditional thinking and the revolutionary ideas that were beginning to trickle in. As a result, the memoir is at turns sad, funny, and bittersweet; I couldn’t have asked for a better last chapter (or last paragraph, for that matter). If you’re into memoirs, this one is a must-read.
The Little Red Guard: A Family Memoir was released on April 26, 2012 by Riverhead, an imprint of Penguin.