River Town is a uniquely descriptive account of life in the Chinese countryside during a time of change and evolution. The American author, Peter Hessler, shares his experiences as an outsider, trying to find his place amid the tumult of the cultural revolution, without getting lost in the process.
Overview of River Town
Peter Hessler moved to Fuling, a “small city” in the Sichuan province, situated along the Yangtze River, in 1996. As a Peace Corps volunteer, he spent two years teaching English and American Literature to the students at the local teacher’s college.
He and another volunteer were the first Americans to step foot in the city in over 50 years. Most of the locals had never seen an American in real life, leading to many awkward, uncomfortable, funny, and beautiful moments during his stay.
“I realized that as a thinking person his advantage lay precisely in his lack of formal education. Nobody told him what to think, and thus he was free to think clearly.”
He spent his time immersing himself in the culture, the language, and getting to know the people. He explored the countryside and took the chance to explore China as a whole, noting the diversity to be found over such a massive region.
Peter experienced the best and got a taste of the worst of what this river town had to offer at a time when China was transitioning from being completely closed off to foreigners and an especially pivotal moment for Fuling, as a new dam was scheduled to be constructed down river, leading to higher water levels which would change the face of this ancient river town forever.
My Review of River Town
I found River Town in a thrift shop, buried in a stack of forgotten books. As we were preparing to move overseas for two years, the tag line “Two Years on the Yangtze” caught my eye. Then, with our move and all the changes of moving across the world, I put off reading the book for a long time, but once I finally picked it back up and started reading, I couldn’t put it down.
The way Peter balances telling too much and not telling enough shows an honesty that made me want to believe every word he wrote. Some travel memoirs can seem too shiny and clean, while others seem to show only the worst, making it difficult to fully appreciate what a place is truly like. River Town, on the other hand, shares Peter’s own thoughts, as well as, the opinions expressed by his students and others he interacted with, providing a well-rounded, fuller view of Fuling life in the 1990’s.
“I looked at the terraced hills and noticed how the people had changed the earth, taming it into dizzying staircases of rice paddies; but the Chinese looked at the people and saw how they have been shaped by the land.”
One overarching theme of River Town iss the constancy of change. Peter describes the changes he noticed within himself, as well as those around him. The way land changed at the hand of men and the way that men changed because of the land they lived on. We can either embrace the change and move forward or we can fight to stand still and end up drowning in the ever-transforming river of life.
I loved reading River Town. China is a place that I’ve never been to, but always been curious about, not just what you see in martial arts movies, but real life. River Town was exactly this. It was fun at times, sad at others, and maddening at some, but it was always thought-provoking and interesting.
Although some topics within River Town are of a more mature nature, they’re told in honest, non-gratuitous ways, to avoid unnecessary offense. It’s YA appropriate, without being juvenile. I fully plan on suggesting it to my kids once they enter their teen years.
About the Author
Peter Hessler is an award-winning author who has spent his career sharing stories and reporting on current events from China and other areas of the world. He’s been recognized for his unbiased, insights into everyday life in China through four successful novels, as well as through his acclaimed articles in publications such as The New Yorker, National Geographic, and The Wall Street Journal, among others.
He’s lived in the US, China, and Egypt. Most recently settling down in Chengdu, China with his family, where he teaches non-fiction writing at Sichuan University.
More Honest Books By Peter Hessler
If you’ve ever wondered about China, give River Town a read and then tell me what you think. Especially if you’ve lived in China, tell me how your experience was, compared with Hessler’s.
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