JPRI Critique Vol. XX No. 1 (January 2014)
Review of Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West by Peter Hessler
by Barbara Bundy
If by chance you missed some of the unforgettable articles published in the New Yorker as stand-alone pieces written by prize-winning author and journalist Peter Hessler when he was the magazine’s Beijing correspondent from 2000 to 2007 and correspondent from Colorado, USA, from shortly thereafter until 2011, you can read them (some reworked into luminous stories) in his most recent book, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West (Harper Perennial, 2013). This gem of a volume was published after Hessler arrived in Cairo in 2011, where he continues to write as correspondent to the New Yorker and lives with his wife, author Leslie Chang, and their twin daughters. Now, however, he is dispatching articles about the Middle East rather than the Middle Kingdom and learning Arabic instead of Mandarin.
“Strange stones” is the Chinese term for “any rock, whose shape looks like something else,” Hessler tells us, noting that collecting and buying such stones is an obsession at scenic destinations across China. In the story by the same name, Hessler recounts arriving for the first time in China in 1996 as a Peace Corps volunteer in a sleepy river town on the Yangtze called Fuling, not knowing Mandarin or much about China. He brings to life this experience in the story “Underwater,” when Fuling was still remote and “had no traffic lights, or highway, and no railroad” and there “was one escalator in town, and people concentrated hard before stepping onto it.” And Hessler’s Peace Corps stint took place before the Three Gorges Dam dislodged entire villages of residents along the Yangtze. (His first book, River Town, deservedly recognized internationally and the winner of the Kiriyama Book Prize, is based on his experience in Fuling.)
Thus began Peter Hessler’s great China odyssey, which was to last from 1996 until 2007. The “strange stones” became a metaphor for what would become his distinctive approach to writing about China: to become familiar through personal interactions with the everyday life of the people and culture initially strange to him as a foreigner and to tell their stories “up close and personal” based on relationships he was quick to make with the people and places along the way and on his own keen observations of the culture at a time of unprecedented economic change and development in China.
This book, unlike Hessler’s first three books focused exclusively on China (River Town, National Book Award finalist Oracle Bones, and Country Driving), consists of 18 discrete chapters, each one a story, and offers a comparative look at different aspects of contemporary life in China, Japan, Nepal, and the United States. The volume is bookended by two of the best pieces in the collection, beginning with “Wild Flavor” set in the village of Luogang in China’s Guangdong Province and ending more recently with “Dr. Don,” set in southwestern Colorado in the town of Nucla that was settled and named a century ago by idealists who hoped their community would become “the center of Socialist government for the world.”
“Wild Flavor” captures the curiosities of culinary and business life in rapidly modernizing rural China in its narrative about the entrepreneurship that produced two competing restaurants in the then new Luogang Economic Development Zone—the Highest Ranking Wild Flavor Restaurant and the New Eight Scenarios Wild Flavor Food City, each specializing in serving rat and hoping to draw urban dwellers from the nearby city of Guangzhou specifically to eat rat.
The collection concludes, fittingly, with a Colorado story about Nucla town icon Don Colcord, owner for over 30 years of the one Apothecary Shoppe in town and the pillar of the community, who has served as doctor as well as druggist when necessary, has presided over funerals and buried his fellow townspeople, and lent upwards of $300,000 to people in need in the community, never expecting that it would or could be repaid.
Hessler also focuses on social and historical issues and events, always approaching them in his distinctive manner, with the lens of a foreigner on the ground among the people he is writing about. He highlights local details, persons, and human relationships and frequently writes with humor about the incongruities one encounters in a culture that is modernizing as rapidly as China. “The Home Team” recounts the historic 2008 Olympics in Beijing with a focus on the All-China Sports Federation, the Chinese sports industry in general, and the success of the Chinese athletes in so many events because they excel in what Hessler calls the more “obscure sports” such as archery, sailing, shooting, weight lifting, and canoeing. His incisive piece on basketball phenomenon Yao Ming and the sports culture and industry in China, “Home and Away,” provides another take on sports in China and the west—not to be missed!
Finally, Hessler’s provocative story of “The Uranium Widows,” set in the town of Uravan in Colorado where the Manhattan Project built a new uranium mill in 1943 to develop the atomic bomb that would shatter Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is one of the most moving dispatches in Strange Stones. Through his interviews with the widows who survive many of the uranium miners who perished from small-cell lung cancer they contracted in the mines in the 1950s, he shows that while America turned against nuclear power in1979 as a result of the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster, the “uranium widows” of the miners who died in Uravan from exposure to radium and who live today in a state where the cancer rates are the highest in the country, ironically do not oppose the industry that killed their husbands. As Hessler shows by letting the widows speak in their own voices, this is one of the contradictions of the culture in this mining area, where the widows today remain grateful for the fact that the uranium industry provided jobs for their husbands at a time when they were desperate for work. Soon Uravan will become the property of the Department of Energy, which intends to keep the Uravan uranium site “closed for all eternity.”
Hessler’s journey in Strange Stones also includes a visit to Japan in the company of his childhood friend from Columbia, Missouri, well-known crime beat reporter who detailed the yakuza in Japan, Jake Adelstein, the subject of “With All Due Respect”; a fascinating and extraordinary account of walking long stretches of the Great Wall with a friend, David Spindler, who spent years researching the Great Wall, and finding fragments of a marble tablet; and the story of his trip to Nepal with an amazing young lobbyist of Nepalese descent in Washington, DC, Rajeev Goyal, and the latter’s attempts to secure funding for the Peace Corps. All these “dispatches” and more add to the richness, depth, and distinctive narratives in Hessler’s latest book.
Barbara Bundy, PhD, a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, is a retired university professor of comparative literature and administrator. During her 43-year career in higher education she was a faculty member and president of Dominican University of San Rafael, taught on the faculties of the University of California at Berkeley and Santa Cruz, and at the University of San Francisco, where she was the founding executive director of the Center for the Pacific Rim for 21 years.