The Library of Legends

Written by Janie Chang
Review by G. J. Berger

In 1937, Japan attacked Nanking and other regions on China’s east coast. The Chinese government ordered students and faculty at some universities to abandon their campuses and trek a thousand miles west and out of Japan’s reach. This fictionalized account of that saga follows nineteen-year-old Hu Lian and her schoolmates. Lian’s university library holds a priceless collection of folklore, called the Library of Legends, which students and faculty must also carry to safety.

After one terrible Japanese air raid, the journey begins. Travelling mostly at night and hiding in ditches, caves, old structures and forests in daylight, the caravan makes steady progress. Japan’s war machine is not the only menace. Chinese communists seek to undermine everything. Spies for Japan, the communists, and the brutal secret police lurk everywhere. An unsolved murder of one student communist organizer, and the arrests of another student and a faculty staff member spook Lian. She and her two companions flee their caravan.

Layered into this real-life story are celestial beings. The senior faculty member communicates with and is guided by them. Lian’s two main companions are celestial characters come to earth.

Chang vividly portrays the deprivations and daily tragedies—soldiers with old rifles and no ammunition, babies dying or abandoned, untreated illnesses. The gulf between peasants and wealthy families is dramatic. Rail-thin poor people are infested by lice and live in filth, while the wealthy have multiple homes and modern luxuries, even in wartime. Occasional lapses into English jargon (“quite the coup”; “Flush… after cashing money”), incorrect use of the “mile” as a distance measure, too many story lines, and repetitive details will disappoint some readers. But overall, this is an interesting and honest account of a little-known part of history.