Of course Dreams of Joy is about much bigger matters. The dreams are not only Joy’s personal dreams, you see, but also the Chinese government’s broad, sweeping claims that the Great Leap Forward will turn China into a paradise. Joy and Pearl can attest: These dreams are not coming true.
And at the risk of losing her books’ usual picturesque allure, See explains how peasants are encouraged to melt all scraps of metal when resources become scarce; how the fields are so ambitiously overplanted that crops cannot thrive; how crushed glass is plowed into the earth because it is a government-recommended nutrient. More than one scene in Dreams of Joy is set at the Chinese Export Commodities Fair in Canton, which has become a thriving international trade event. At the time of the novel it is a less scintillating exhibition, where many glorious Chinese tractors are on view.
The real and terrible consequences of the government’s miscalculations are also part of See’s story. Her estimate that the ensuing famine killed 45 million people may be high (no precise count of casualties exists), but the suffering and deprivation she describes are real. So are officials’ saber-rattling claims that some day China’s economy will thrive enough to threaten that of the US.
Dwarfed by matters of such historical magnitude, Joy seems less and less consequential as Dreams of Joy moves toward its ending. And the reader is dragged through the last stages of the plot, the ones that force Joy to come to her senses. “I thought I could use idealism to solve my inner conflicts,” she ultimately realizes, “but in healing my inner conflicts I destroyed my idealism.” Dreams of Joy takes a very slow boat to China to arrive at this destination.