LEARNING TO EAT BITTER by Troy  Blappert

LEARNING TO EAT BITTER

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KIRKUS REVIEW

This debut middle-grade novel features a farmer’s son who studies with Shaolin monks in the hope of finding his missing mother.

A remote mountain village in China’s Henan province has been destroyed by an earthquake. Ten-year-old Xiao Gui and his father, Da Gui, are struggling to recover provisions from their ruined home. The quake is only the latest in a string of disasters, including the kidnapping of Xiao’s mother, Cheng Mei, and a drought that’s left the family with little to eat. Thankfully, Shaolin monks arrive with rice and water. After the monk Shi Xing Jian sees Xiao stop a thief by using rudimentary fighting skills, the teacher invites him to study kung fu (and Buddhism) at the Shaolin Temple. Da encourages his son to go, not only to fulfill his potential, but also to try to find his mother. Xiao agrees, and Da then travels to Henan’s capital, Zhengzhou, to find work. Meanwhile, it turns out that Cheng Mei has been sold into the family of a truck driver, whom she sees maybe twice a year. Mostly, she labors at the feet of a vicious mother-in-law who speaks a dialect of Mandarin that Cheng Mei only partially understands. It’s for Cheng Mei’s sake that Xiao must overcome the curse of the Gui family name, which means “ghost.” Debut novelist Blappert offers fabulous insight into the Shaolin way of life, sharing bits of knowledge that will be valuable to readers of all cultures, as when Shi Xing Jian says, “That is the thing about suffering. It is always temporary.” Although Xiao’s story arc highlights positive aspects of both modern and ancient China, the plight of his parents reveals the darker side of the society in which they live. For instance, Da eventually gets a job with a crew that obtains trees illegally from a national forest for housing developments, risking imprisonment. Readers will delight in seeing Xiao learn Buddhist principles, however, such as, “Anger is attachment,” and apply them to reversing his family’s bad luck. Blappert’s smooth prose and strong narrative structure make for an uplifting tale for all ages.

A culturally astute story that showcases the values of patience and discipline.

Pub Date: April 15th, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-73366-650-3
Page count: 238pp
Publisher: Schlisselthal
Program: Kirkus Indie
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