Full disclosure: I am a westerner, born and bred. The farthest East I have been is Nipigon, Ontario. Having western values ingrained into every fibre of my being, I feel fully justified in telling western writers to stop trying to write about the East. I would also caution American writers to stop trying to write about communism in any meaningful way, because what comes across is a stereotypical bit of tripe about a society that we understand very little of. Craig Thomas’s Firefox was one such book, David Ball’s China Run is another.
China Run is built around three couples who have come to China to adopt children. They are nearly a week into their trip when they are told that these babies have to be returned and exchanged for others. This sets half the couples (the aforementioned three) on a race across China, evading police and the government for nearly 400 pagers, each more implausible than the last. To be fair, which I suppose I should be, it would have been a short story indeed, if each of the families had been caught within the first day or so of their trip, but even so, in essence the plot is predictable: American families refuse to bow to the pressure of a foreign government, they go on the run with aid from a local, they get separated from said local, but still find locals willing to help at great personal risk. They experience a series of near misses and lucky coincidences and lazy officials that work to their benefit. They’re picked off one by one until only our heroine – the aforementioned Allison ‘Mary Sue’ Turk, emerges beaten and worse for wear, but still victorious, in pre-Handover Hong Kong.
Perhaps my dislike for this story has to do with the old peeking behind the curtain trick. Pay no attention to the man working the machine, only the stage show. Some stories can put on a great show while still standing up to scrutiny and criticism (see Jane Eyre, the works of Jane Austen, Du Maurier or Atwood, Steinbeck). China Run is one of the flashier but ultimately flimsy sort of vehicles. If you want to read a face paced story about Americans traveling through China, trying to get their way – read China Run. But like a house of cards, if you try to remove one, the whole story implodes in a cascade of cliched characters, western values glued onto eastern pawns, and an unbelievable set of helpers.
I will part from you with this question to ponder: if most people of China were so afraid of their government (with good reason in this book), why were so many willing to help? This, dear friends, is what happens when we have a westerner writing for a western audience about a culture that we are not very familiar with. If looking for something plot driven, an enjoyable romp through China. If you are looking for character development, stop now. Instead, read Harry Potter, East of Eden, Alias Grace, or Rebecca