Book Review: The Palest Ink by Kay Bratt

Check out my interview with Kay Bratt here. Be sure to read all the way to the end for a chance to win a copy of The Palest Ink. 

About The Palest Ink

A sheltered son from an intellectual family in Shanghai, Benfu spends 1966 anticipating a promising violinist career and an arranged marriage. On the other side of town lives Pony Boy, a member of a lower-class family—but Benfu’s best friend all the same. Their futures look different but guaranteed…until they’re faced with a perilous opportunity to leave a mark on history.

At the announcement of China’s Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao’s Red Guard members begin their assault, leaving innocent victims in their wake as they surge across the country. With political turmoil at their door, both Benfu and Pony Boy must face heart-wrenching decisions regarding family, friendship, courage, and loyalty to their country during one of the most chaotic periods in history.

The prequel to the beloved Tales of the Scavenger’s Daughters series, The Palest Ink depicts Benfu’s coming-of-age during the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution.

My Review

Kay Bratt’s latest novel The Palest Ink follows about two years in the lives of Pony Boy (a poor son of a postal worker and factory employee) and Binfu (the son of university academics) at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution (which started in 1966). While the book is interesting and heartbreaking at times, it is important to remember that the Cultural Revolution was actually much worse than it is presented here.

Life in cities such as Shanghai was very different from life in the countryside for most of the Cultural Revolution and its predecessor The Great Leap Forward. Since Binfu and Pony Boy live in Shanghai, they have a measure of protection from starvation, manual labor, and the Red Guards. Information is also highly censored, so no one ever knows what is really going on. However, both of the families live in terror of not knowing what will happen. Because of this, both families make decisions without having all the facts. It is when the boys leave Shanghai that their lives change for the worse, if they could possibly get worse. Probably the most tragic part of the novel is that the major catastrophes that befall them come from their own choices and decisions – although they wouldn’t have had to make such decisions had Mao not declared war on his own people. “If only” plagues this novel, which is frustrating to read, but imagine having to live it.

The book is very easy to read and isn’t too graphic or tragic. It would be appropriate for even young readers. It ends on about as high of note as it could considering it only covers the beginnings of the Cultural Revolution. It is important to remember when reading stories like that just how terrible the time period was for everyone, rich and poor. One of the interesting things about the novel is just how much Pony Boy’s family suffers when all of Mao’s revolutions were supposed to have raised families like his up. From 1949, when Mao came to power, to Mao’s death in 1976, over 70 million people died. And that was during a time of peace with the outside world. China under Mao was horrific. I would not say the story here fully depicts the horrors of the time, but it is tragic, which is probably enough for sharing such a small part of the lives of two families.

There was one glaring error in the book, though, that I really can’t ignore, and that is her description of foot binding. This is something that I have done considerable research on and have written about before. When an elderly woman in the book talks about her feet being bound, she says that she was 13 and her sister was 12 when their feet were bound and that some girls waited until they were 14 to have their feet bound. The process was done to little girls, less than 6 years old, in order to stop their feet from growing.

This is probably a good book for young readers or people with limited knowledge about China and the Cultural Revolution, but it was a bit watered-down for my taste.

About the Author

Kay Bratt is a child advocate and author. She was born in Kansas and lived all over the U.S. before settling in the Carolinas. Kay’s experiences of growing up as the constant new kid—and usually one of the poorest—ignited a passion to advocate for children in need when she became an adult.

When Kay’s husband’s career took them overseas to live in China, she was drawn to the cause of that country’s forgotten and abused orphans and devoted herself to working in a local orphanage. She found that journaling helped her to bear the emotional impact of the abhorrent conditions she witnessed. Upon her return to the U.S. after five years in China, Kay wrote about her experiences and her fight against the Chinese bureaucracy as she tried to change the social conditions in a bestselling memoir, Silent Tears, A Journey of Hope in a Chinese Orphanage. The book resonated with readers all over the world and became a bestseller. She continued to write, but it was when she came across an article about a scavenger in China who took in abandoned children that she was inspired to write the book that launched her bestselling fiction series, The Tales of the Scavenger’s Daughters.

Her new novel, THE PALEST INK, a prequel of sorts to The Tales of the Scavenger’s Daughters, will be published by Lake Union Publishing on October 27, 2015.

Kay continues to be a voice for children who cannot speak for themselves. In addition to using her writing to gain awareness, she has actively volunteered for several non-profit organizations, including An Orphan’s Wish (AOW), Pearl River Outreach, and the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for abused and neglected children. In China, she was honored with the Pride of the City award for humanitarian work.

Kay lives in South Carolina, at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband, daughter, dog, and cat. | @kaybratt