One of the books I am juggling this winter takes place in China during 1976. It is one of those books about history that can be read a chapter on Monday and Friday while another book about some other historical event can be read a couple other days a week, and still a third on the remaining days. I love to juggle books and unlike fiction where one needs to be more mindful of the characters so not to lose track of the story, works of history can be piled and read over time.
Which brings me to Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Death of Mao’s China.
I was a freshman in high school the day Mao died, and I recall it quite well. PBS devoted their evening programming to a documentary on his life and Chinese history. It was fascinating and left an impression on me. The drama on the world stage was also a welcome distraction from the world of crazy that I was experiencing as a freshman. (To read about that story consider my book, Walking Up The Ramp. which according to Jeb Bush last night in the presidential debate is more expensive than his–by about $8.00) To sit in our living room and travel back over Mao’s life remains one of those memories–and one of those events–that shaped my life-long yearning to know about places and people around the world.
So it comes easy for me to flip the pages of James Palmers’ book which places the God-awful and horrific earthquake that will decimate the industrial city of Tangshan in the summer of 1976, along with the deaths of Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou Enlai into one epic sweeping fast-paced narrative. The book is only about 250 pages of text and that includes the devastation of the earthquake that kills more than a half-million people. With a summation of how China came to the end of the Cultural Revolution as Mao lies in his bed dying Palmer also gives sense as to how China emerged on the world stage ready to be potent in the decades to come.
This is not a book for someone looking for a week of vacation fun on the warm beaches of Cancun. But for a lover of history who desires a fast and factual account of one year in the life of a place most will never venture to–and yet wanting to know more about a time worth recalling– this book will be a hit.