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li lun lad of courage

13 april 2019

Li Lun Lad of Courage begins his story as a coward. Imagine growing up on an island where there's nothing to do but sail in pursuit of fish – and you're afraid of the water! Wang Lun is disgusted by his son's wimpy behavior. If the kid won't go off in a boat, he will just have to climb to the top of Lao Shan, the island's mountain, and grow some rice. This is a breathtakingly stupid task. What point is there to growing rice on top of a mountain? It must be Symbolic. That, or the old man is as dumb as he's mean.

Li Lun trudges to the top of the mountain carrying several months worth of provisions and seven grains of rice. He has to be talked out of bringing along his pet duck. Li Lun is supposed to parlay the seven grains into 49 before he climbs back down. Not much margin for error there. The days settle into a highly uninteresting routine of trying to keep gulls and rats away from the rice patch. You've heard of things being as dull as watching paint dry; this book is as dull as watching rice grow.

Li Lun may be a feckless kid with a moron for a father, but the island's many priests take a shine to the kid. Anybody who can watch rice grow for months at a time in less-than-optimal Alpine conditions has a future in temple rituals. It's not long before Li Lun is down to a single rice plant, which he watches with the intensity of a day trader monitoring his portfolio. It bears 99 grains of rice! Mission accomplished. The priests are delighted, and even the taciturn Wang Lun has to admit that his son is a Lad of Courage.

I don't know what the Newbery Medal jury in 1948 was thinking when they named this one a Runner-Up. Possibly the competition was not brisk. The Twenty-One Balloons deserved its medal that year, and Misty of Chincoteague joined Li Lun and others as Runners-Up. The most enduring children's book from 1947 (the Newberys are always awarded the next year) is Goodnight Moon, but it's not in the usual range for the award. The one I read most obsessively, as a kid two decades later, was Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. I admired and feared Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's brand of tough love. But she was probably a little too commercial for the Newbery crowd.

Li Lun Lad of Courage participates in the American assumption – not quite dead now, though rampant on the mid-20th-century – that the Rest of the World is a natural setting for children's books. It's a bit relativist, or at least not patronizing, but at the same time it is distinctly Orientalist, in treating its Chinese characters as, well, inscrutably Other. Carolyn Treffinger's notions about their odd obsessions with rice, filial behavior, losing face, and impassive Sitzfleisch make for a curiously static children's adventure story that certainly Couldn't Happen Here.

Treffinger, Carolyn. Li Lun Lad of Courage. Illustrated by Kurt Wiese. New York: Abingdon, 1947.