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MY OLD HOME by Orville Schell


by Orville Schell

Pub Date: March 9th, 2021
ISBN: 978-0-593-31581-1
Publisher: Pantheon

Schell's sweeping historical epic charts the coming-of-age of a young Chinese man in his search for identity, belonging, and love across two continents.

The novel begins in Beijing, where 14-year-old Li Wende, called Little Li, lives with his father, Li Tongshu, a music professor at the local conservatory. Their lives become increasingly more restricted under Mao Zedong's intensifying Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, as the Red Guard frequently harasses anyone who appears sympathetic to Christianity or what they consider Western art or thought—eventually including Little Li and his father. Little Li moves from one kind of exile to another, never feeling at home anywhere. Having been born to a Chinese father and Chinese American mother, Little Li often feels like an outsider in Beijing. He dreams of leaving China to study the flute in the U.S., but his late mother's sister tells him he'll be on his own if he gets there. Torn between the shifting cultural and political influences of Chairman Mao and then Deng Xiaoping, however, his home in Beijing also threatens to become a place he no longer recognizes. From remote labor camps in the mountains of Tibet to seedy hotels in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, each setting is infused with such animated detail that they all seem to come alive. Schell similarly renders Little Li’s beloved works of classical music with such tender specificity that the pages almost sing. At times, however, the main characters’ lives appear to be the background against which history unfolds rather than the other way around, perhaps owing to Schell’s long career as a journalist and historian. Readers will emerge from the novel with keen insights into China's struggle to determine its political, economic, and cultural identity. However, they also may be left without a clear sense of who Little Li really is, despite journeying with him for more than 600 pages.

An ambitious journey through history that captivates with its spectacular scenery.