In We Served the People, Emei Burell shares her stories of her mother, Yuan, growing up in China during a time when childhoods were being interrupted by the Cultural Revolution. Schools stopped teaching students, classes became useless and then the ‘Down to the Countryside’ movement began – where children were told to go to the countryside to work, leaving their families and friends behind in place of manual labour and a misplaced education.
Emei Burell’s linework is exquisite; her lines flow across the page appearing soft and care-free but are clearly brimming with skilful intent. The palette, mainly consisting of light blues and beige, is reminiscent of faded photographs and a humid, stagnant temperature. This stagnation reinforces the interruption contained within her mother’s stories – a disrupted childhood. The book is also interspersed with actual photographs of Burell’s mother, taken during the Cultural Revolution. These act as reminders of the actuality of the stories being told and ground their oftentimes comical undertones with the harsher realities these children were forced to endure.
Burell remarks in the beginning that it is her mother’s childhood memories that become a big part of her own childhood, as she remembers being told her mother’s stories of the Cultural Revolution. The fact their childhoods now converge in this way allows Yuan to reclaim her childhood through these retellings. Her mother’s story is also empowering in and of itself, as Yuan is determined to get the education she was forced to abandon and her ambition to achieve academic success motivates her through tough times – battling with strict superiors and unrelenting work.
We Served the People informs readers of the realities of growing up in China during this turbulent period of history and tells the story of perseverance and determination. It is inspiring and entertaining, painful, yet uplifting. It is painful to imagine the helplessness felt by children who had no choice but to leave their youth behind them, but also uplifting to see Yuan not let these difficulties get in the way of her ambition.
Emei Burell (W/A) • BOOM! Studios/Archaia, $24,99
Review by Rebecca Burke