I did always wonder what the COVID-19 pandemic would have been like from the very beginning, even when no one yet knew what it was in Wuhan, China. I only have my experience, watching the progression of the disease through the world before our own world shut down. Morning Sun in Wuhan by Ying Chang Compestine (Clarion Books, 2022), which is written by a native of Wuhan, is a middle-grade novel that shares such a perspective, that of a young girl swept up in the midst of her world’s shut-down.
Mei is a young middle schooler who loves to cook. In the past year since her mother died in an accident, she’s been struggling to find a place, and feeling alone except for the times she is cooking and when she is chatting and playing with her friends on her video gaming server. As the book begins, her father, a respiratory doctor in the local hospital, is even more busy than normal, and she rarely sees him. She focuses on cooking to pass her time. Throughout the book, chapters end with the recipes of the food she cooks, a nice touch that emphasizes the unique culture of Wuhan, but also regularizes the daily routines in Mei’s own life.
We know that Mei’s father, at the hospital, is helping with the beginning stages of a major outbreak of the new virus, but Mei just wants to see him more frequently. Throughout the course of just a few days at the end of January 2020, Mei is quickly thrust into a government-imposed lockdown: school is canceled, stores and restaurants are ordered closed, and now her father is unable to get home at all. Not only that, but despite her father’s warnings, Mei is confused, because she is surrounded by people who think this is all an overreaction.
Does this sound familiar? It may, but Mei’s situation is a bit different than ours was in March 2020. Not only does the local government refuse to let people out of the city, but those who have tried to flee are unable to enter any other city or return to Wuhan. Further, no one is allowed to leave the apartment complexes at all, due to the government-appointed armed guards at the gates. When a person in Mei’s apartment building begins coughing, the guards barricade the door so no one can go in and out of the apartment. Ambulance sirens become a common sound. Now, a community leader takes the orders for the entire apartment’s groceries and distributes them to families, despite the fact that only a few basic foods are available each week.
A hopeful and confident tone continues throughout the book, even though Mei’s story sounds scary. In fact, her situation seems even more concerning than it was in the U.S.A. The Chinese government tells everyone that the disease is under control, but it is clear to Mei and the others that the situation is becoming more difficult, due to the increasing restrictions. Because this is just the beginning of the pandemic, there is very little understanding of the virus’s danger, and very few supplies for those quarantined. No one knows how to help the sick, and without masks, people use fruit peels and underpants as masks.
Throughout her story, Mei’s cooking helps her deal with her circumstance, and her fear is dissipated with the nutritious food she shares with her neighbors. Throughout the changing situation, Mei finally comes into her own: she finds her place. As she joins in as an energetic community helper, she and her gaming friends (who live elsewhere in the city) join a food delivery organization and Mei is able to use her cooking skills to provide food for her father at the hospital, for the elderly unable to cook, and even for her own neighbors, including a young girl likewise alone since her mother and father fled town to pick up her brother and are now unable to return.
The book ends after just a few weeks of this pandemic chaos, now that Mei has found a place and the virus is a little more understood. A hopeful epilogue shows the reopened city a year later, and the main characters reunited and at peace. The titular reference to “Morning Sun” refers to the comforting song her mother used to sing to Mei, a song that emphasizes the beauty of the world around her in the Wuhan region. Much as our quarantine at times felt like a community effort to support each other, the people of Wuhan likewise gathered together. Despite the restrictions and her desire to live a normal life as a kid, Mei was forced to face the realities of a difficult life. She came out stronger in the end. Her story provides a unique yet powerful example of such resilience.
I received a digital copy of the book for review consideration.