fiction favorites…The House of Sixty Fathers

The House of Sixty Fathers, by Meindert DeJong, with pictures by Maurice Sendak

Tien Pao had not understood it too well when last night the new neighbors had explained about the great airfield to his father — he’d been too stupefied with weariness.  He had not known that airplanes needed fields, almost as if they were cows or grazing goats.  He had never seen a white foreigner.  But airplanes he knew!  Airplanes came screaming out of the sky, and out of them bullets stuttered, and then water spat, and sampans sank, and people fell, and a whole village burned while in an empty river red from flames one sampan drifted on red water.

When my husband and I were first married, I began to read aloud to him, introducing him to some of my best “book-friends” so we could share these well-loved acquaintances.  I guess Winnie-the-Pooh was first.  But close behind were Tien Pao,  his sixty fathers, the beloved pig, Glory-of-the-Republic, and his  dear parents and baby sister.  For I had read this book as a child and it had left an indelible print on my heart.  It is an incredibly gripping story, and one of my all-time favorites.

Tien Pao is a young Chinese boy, caught in the middle of a horrible war.  It is around 1940 and the Japanese have invaded China.  Amid a fierce, terrifying battle, he and his family have fled their village, journeying far, far inland, up the river in a sampan.   But one day, when Tien Pao and the family pig are alone in the boat, a terrific rainstorm washes the boat free from its moorings and these two small ones are carried right back into enemy territory.

Tien Pao begins a long, frightening journey back to his family and safety.  Along the way, he encounters breathtaking dangers and sorrows far beyond what any child should endure.  He also encounters a blond-haired, blue-eyed American airman, one of the Flying Tigers stationed there to help the Chinese.  Tien Pao’s friendship with Lieutenant Hamsun is one of the sweetest friendships in literature. 

Eventually, Tien Pao arrives at the air base where sixty airmen are eager to adopt him, but Tien Pao is relentless in his search for his own mother and father and sister.  In that vast land, with throngs of refugees displaced and on the move, the chances for locating one tiny family are very, very slim.  Will luck be on Tien Pao’s side?

This is such an emotional story.  DeJong has created characters to love, to make you smile, and to break your heart, and has placed them in the middle of a tragically realistic setting. 
The emotional integrity of the story no doubt comes from the fact that DeJong himself worked in China during WWII, and he and his outfit took in a young Chinese war-orphan.  The two of them shared an especially sweet relationship, and DeJong longed to bring the boy back to America with him when he left.  This was not possible.  The American soldiers left their orphan boy as well cared for as possible, but eventually the Communists took over the area and DeJong never heard from him again.  If you look at the dedication to the book, you will find that little boy’s name.

I know many of you are looking for stories that a 10-year-old can sink his/her teeth into, and this is a great choice.  It’s too intense for kids much younger than that, but plenty powerful for kids well beyond.  This is a Newbery Honor book from 1957 and, obviously, highly recommended.