One sunny morning in 1978 in the remote, very northernmost part of China, a slight eleven-year-old girl named Zhongmei Li got on a bus for the first leg of a journey to Beijing, China's capital. Zhongmei had gotten up that morning as she always did, to the sound of roosters crowing and hens clucking in nearby yards. She was so excited, hopeful, and nervous that she could barely eat the breakfast of rice porridge and corn fritters that her older sister Zhongqin made for her, because this was indeed a very big event in the life of a young girl who had never been more than a few hours from her hometown. It was even a noteworthy event for the town itself, a place called Baoquanling, most of whose residents had never been to Beijing and never expected to go.
When Zhongmei got to the bus station, just a patch of open ground alongside the town's main street, she found that most of the people she knew were there to see her off--her classmates from her fifth grade in elementary school, her neighbors, and a few of her teachers. Her two older sisters, her older brother, and her younger one had accompanied her to the bus station as well, though her mother and father couldn't be there because, like all the adults in this region of China, they had to put in a full day of work, whether their daughters were heading off to Beijing or not. In all the trip would take three days and two nights on two buses and two trains. But Zhongmei wouldn't be alone. On the first part of the journey to Jiamusi, which was two buses and four hours away, she was going to be accompanied by Zhongqin, who was not only the older of her sisters but was also her best friend.
"We're going to miss you," one of her classmates called out as Zhongmei and Zhongqin turned to get on the bus.
"I'll miss you too," Zhongmei replied.
"Do your best," one of her teachers said, raising a clenched fist in the air, looking a bit like a figure in one of the posters that were up all over China in those days, urging people to fight for the revolution. "Try hard. Be strong."
"I will," said Zhongmei.
Zhongmei shook hands all around, gave her younger brother a pat on the head, hugged her second sister, and smiled at her older brother, who gave her a cheerful thumbs-up. Standing on the first step of the bus entrance, she took one last look around the place where she had spent her whole life. Baoquanling was about as remote as remote gets in China, pressed against the border with Russian Siberia, blazing hot in summer, freezing in winter, battered by strong winds in the spring and fall. The air on this early morning was cool and fresh, though it would get scorching hot in a little while. The sky was a pale blue stained with yellow dust and streaked with high, thin clouds. A Chinese flag, five white stars on a field of red, hung limply from a nearby flagpole. Through a gap in the buildings that lined Bao-quan-ling's main street, Zhongmei could see a row of men and women, pitchforks and rakes slung over their shoulders like rifles, marching out to the wheat and vegetable fields of the Baoquanling State Farm.
Zhongmei and Zhongqin pushed their way into the bus, Zhongmei carrying the small cloth suitcase that Zhongqin had bought for the occasion at the local department store--none of the Li children had really been anyplace before, so they didn't have any travel accessories. There was a good deal of pushing and shoving as passengers scrambled to find seats, or risk having to stand in the aisle all the way to Hegang. Zhongqin was lucky to get a spot in the very first row just behind the driver. She relieved Zhongmei of the suitcase and put it on her lap. Zhongmei, a bit less lucky, sat on the cushioned engine cover that occupied the front part of the aisle, which warmed up from the heat of the engine and vibrated the whole way to Hegang.
Zhongmei watched as the bus driver revved up the engine and put it noisily into gear. She turned to wave to her friends and family, but the bus kicked up such a thick cloud of dust and smoke as it roared into motion that nobody was visible. Zhongmei felt a wave of disappointment at that, but then she figured it didn't really matter. For weeks everybody had been telling her that she was bound to fail in Beijing and would be back in Baoquanling pretty soon, after which everything else would go back to the way it had been before--except that her hard-pressed family would have to pay back the money they borrowed for one expensive train tricket. This was not what Zhongmei hoped for, and she was determined not to fail. And yet so many people seemed to think that she was making this big trip for nothing that she had begun to wonder if, maybe, they were right.
The flat, straight road leading out of Baoquanling was lined with gray birch trees whose trunks were painted white so they could be easily seen at night. It teemed with bicycles, oxcarts, and three-wheeled farm trucks filled with trussed pigs, slatted chicken crates, bricks, cinder blocks, mounds of cabbages or turnips or eggplants or straw, or mesh bags bulging with garlic heads, onions, potatoes, beets, and white Chinese radishes. Blackbirds perched on the electricity wires strung across the endless rank of telephone poles parallel to the road.
The bus rumbled and bounced on the rutted track. Trucks, crowded with farm workers whose legs dangled over the edges of their flat wooden beds, passed from the other direction. They were being taken to Baoquanling's more distant fields, and Zhongmei strained to see if her mother was among them, since she was a fieldworker herself who often traveled that way, but she caught no glimpse of her. Her bones beat to the vibration of the engine. Her bottom was warm.
In the distance on the left side of the bus was a range of purple hills where in the spring and summer members of Zhongmei's family searched for medicinal herbs and mushrooms. These were the peaks in the name of Zhongmei's hometown, whose three Chinese characters, Bao Quan Ling, mean "Precious Water from the Mountain Peaks," and Zhongmei remembered her excursions there with her two sisters. As the youngest, Zhongmei was only allowed to go to the crest of the first hill, where the sisters gathered pine nuts and mushrooms. Wolves lived beyond that spot and over the next hills, and often at night the Li family could hear their distant howling. Sometimes one of Zhongmei's older cousins went deep into the mountains to hunt for wild turkey and pheasant, and when he was successful, there was meat for dinner, a rare event for the people of Baoquanling.
Once Zhongmei's younger brother, Li Feng, got sick, and her second sister, Zhongling, took it on herself to go into the mountains to gather a special grass that could be brewed into a medicinal tea. Zhongling climbed through the woods and over the first hill where the sisters usually stopped for their mushrooms and nuts. She walked over the second hill and into a valley where, as she gathered the grass, she noticed two puppies in a nest of leaves and twigs under a big tree. Or at least she thought they were puppies. They were cute and playful. Happily Zhongling put them into her sack and brought them home, shepherding them under a table in the kitchen and feeding them some scraps.
That night the howling of the wolves wasn't as far away as it usually was. It was alarmingly close. There was a scraping noise just outside the house, canine nails sliding down the brick walls. Suddenly the gray head of a wolf, its fangs showing, appeared in a window, just like Zhongmei imagined in the story of the three pigs, which she'd read at school. It seemed to be looking inside the house, trying to find what everybody now knew were wolf pups, not dog pups. Zhongmei remembered not sleeping much that night as she huddled against her big sisters, listening to the wolves as they prowled outside, sniffing at the window, scratching the walls, howling at the moon just outside the gate.
"Don't be scared," Zhongqin said to Zhongmei and to Li Feng, who was equally terrified. "It's a strong brick house."
Zhongmei finally fell asleep, and when she woke up at dawn, the wolves had left. A car belonging to the state farm was called. Zhongling put the two adorable wolf pups in her sack, scurried through the yard, ran out the gate, and jumped into the car, looking out for the wolves she feared might still be roaming the alley outside the house. Carrying the sack over her shoulder, she climbed over the first hill and, not daring to go any farther, released the two pups, and then watched as they scampered over the hill toward the deep forest. That night, Zhongmei remembered, now smiling at the thought, the howling of the wolves was reassuringly far away, though it was still a little scary.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from A Girl Named Faithful Plum by Richard Bernstein. Copyright © 2011 by Richard Bernstein. Excerpted by permission of Yearling, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.