Book Club: Freedom Swimmer

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Author: Wai Chim
ISBN: 978-1-76011-341-4
RRP: $16.99

Freedom Swimmer is based on a true story and aimed at an 11-14 year old audience, but I think there is a lot to attract audiences of a much wider demographic.


My history is patchy to say the least, it was never my strong suit at school and it really hasn’t gotten any better. I should probably know more about Mao’s China than I do and so I found it interesting reading to delve into that time through Chim’s writing.

Freedom Swimmer is the story of two Chinese boys from very different backgrounds and the unlikely friendship they forge when forced to toil alongside one another in the fields.

Ming is an outcast in his village even before the arrival of the youths from the Communist Party re-education program, it is rumoured that his father died in an attempt to make a freedom swim and that has tarnished Ming’s reputation in the village. He also lost his mother in the last famine and is all alone, my heart broke for this boy who was only eleven when he needed to take his deceased mother away because he was the only one left in the family.

Six years later the famine has passed but the village is still very poor and all of the villagers are working hard in the fields for minimal rations credits. When the city boys are bussed in they are looking fit, healthy and well fed – a sharp contrast to the villagers. The first night the city boys cook a meal like the village boys haven’t seen since before the famine. It highlights their difference as starkly as their appearances.

The months the two groups of boys spend living in close quarters show the contrasts, but also start to blur the differences. As each group of boys learn more about the other it changes their way of thinking a little.

We watch on as the villagers learn a little more about Mao’s philosophies and begin to memorise his teachings, while some of the city boys start to question Mao’s ideals and the treatment carried out in his name.

freedom swimmer

There are times in our lives that we all sit back and think we have it hard, well Freedom Swimmer is a great illustration of just how good we have it. I hate to think how bad things would have to be for someone to give serious consideration to swimming from Mainland China to Hong Kong, through shark infested waters that are patrolled by guards.

Freedom Swimmer tells a harrowing story of poverty, famine and communism in China, with back breaking work, suspicion on every corner and never knowing who to trust. It’s a story of the bonds of friendship that grow when everything seems lost and it’s the story of a determination to break the bonds of oppression and find freedom. I really enjoyed this book for it’s interesting characters and it’s spotlight on history.

Freedom Swimmer is book #44 for the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge 2016

Thanks to Allen & Unwin 16 of our Beauty and Lace Club members will be reading Freedom Swimmer with their children so please be aware there may be spoilers in the comments below. I look forward to hearing what they think.

Freedom Swimmer is available now through Allen & Unwin, Angus & Robertson Bookworld, Booktopia and where all good books are sold.

Wai Chim can be found on Facebook, Twitter and her Website.

18 thoughts on “Book Club: Freedom Swimmer

  1. Still waiting for my copy to arrive for my step son to read .. When I told him I’d won a copy he was excited and asks every day if it has arrived yet .

  2. My 14-year-old nephew and I both read Freedom Swimmer, an emotionally raw and very real story about the hardships faced by two young boys, Ming and Li, who grow up and become friends during Mao Tse Tung’s Cultural Revolution.

    Ming is the often starving, poor orphaned son of peasant farmers and lives a hand to mouth existence working the fields in his village. Li is a privileged city boy from a ‘good’ family and is a patriotic member of the youth movement called the Red Guard.

    The two boys lives become entwined when Li and other Red Guards are sent to Ming’s village, as part of the government’s policy to re educate young people by sending them into the country to do manual labour, and to further spread the word of Chairman Mao.

    My nephew said he found Freedom Swimmer, easy to read and he was fascinated to learn about what Ming and Li endured living in China under Mao Tse Tung, a way of life he said he found hard to imagine. He described their story as being very much a survival story – like being marooned or stranded somewhere far away from the world (as we know it). Reading the book triggered questions from him about how people survived, why Mao was so popular and whether it’s different now?

    He was astonished that Freedom Swimmer is based on the author’s father’s real life experiences growing up, and that it had happened not so long ago. Both he and I were surprised and interested to learn that lots of people had actually done the same thing as Ming and Li, and escaped from Mainland China by swimming to Hong Kong! We later googled freedom swimmers and found out that despite the threat of being eaten by sharks or being shot at by armed patrols, thousands of people are estimated to have undertaken the swim, which takes at least 8 hours to do!!

    Freedom Swimmer was an interesting and thought provoking read. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to review it!

  3. Freedom Swimmer is a wonderful book the kids and I enjoyed reading
    Absolutely fascinating how other cultures live compared to our great life in Australia
    The hardships that they endured were quite a eye opener to the kids and myself
    We were amazed that the boys undertook the swim which is extremely dangerous
    The book is wonderfully written and I personally believe a great story for all ages
    Thank you for the chance to read this book

  4. What an eye opener this book is I read it and couldn’t put it down then my 14 year old daughter read it and her comment to me was WOW mum I will never complain that I have a hard life again. It was hard hitting in some areas making us realise just how awesome our life is. It showed how brave those boys were and how they so wonderfullly dealt with their lot on life, this book was easy to read and is now a favourite on our bookshelf, thankyou for the opportunity it has made myself and my daughter think about our priorities.

  5. Wai Chim’s novel, Freedom Swimmer may be a work of fiction but it’s based on an amazing true story. It tells the tale of two unlikely friends who embark on a treacherous swim from mainland China to Hong Kong in order to escape the oppression of living under the communist rule of Chairman Mao Zedong. The story is ultimately an incredible and inspiring one that will get us thinking and talking about an important chapter in history (and unfortunately one where millions of people died.)

    The book is Chim’s first foray into the world of young adult literature but it isn’t her first story to be set in China. Chim has successfully written The Chook Chook series for younger readers. In Freedom Swimmer she writes a first-person narrative where the perspective shifts between the shy, orphaned peasant boy Ming and the suave and educated city boy, Li. The book opens with some tragedy for Ming- his mother has died from starvation and this has left him an orphan. He is all alone but he does receive some kindness and compassion from a local village girl named Fei.

    In 1968 the boys from the village are left to work hard in the fields and survive on a meagre diet of rations. Eventually they are joined by a group of young upstarts from the city that includes Li. This new group are teenage members of Mao’s red guards and they have come to the countryside to help spread the word for the Communist Party’s re-education program. At first the differences between the two groups are stark but over time Ming and Li bond over their harsh circumstances. The pair eventually decide that they need to escape and that they should undertake a difficult swim through shark-infested waters and oceans that are patrolled by cruel guards. What happens next is in their destiny.

    Freedom Swimmer shares a few things in common with Alice Pung’s Her Father’s Daughter and Micheline Lee’s The Healing Party. In the case of the former, both authors draw inspiration from their father’s harsh childhoods in order to make us stop, re-think and count our blessings. In the case of the latter, both novels deal with poignant and meaningful topics but also manage to tell their stories through light and easy language.

    In Freedom Swimmer Wai Chim manages to negotiate a potential minefield and handle some difficult subjects with a deft touch. This story is ultimately an inspiring one about the resilience of the human spirit and how people can remain optimistic even in the face of darkness and oppression. In all, this book is an excellent one that packs a lot in and is basically like a punch to the heart.

  6. My 12-yr-old daughter read Freedom Swimmer and her review is as follows:
    ‘Freedom Swimmer’ is a powerful story that made me think about how lucky I am to be living in Australia. This story is based on a boy named Ming and how he struggles through life in China. As Ming is faced with so many challenges throughout everyday life, he always uses determination and bravery to face his problems. Even if it required breaking a few rules, he would always try to keep the peace and stay loyal to his friends. I was really surprised when I read the author’s note at the end of the novel and it said that the story was based on the author’s father and the struggles he went through during his life in China too. I would highly recommend this book to not only readers at teen age, but to younger children, as well as an older audience to read with a parent. My mum is planning on reading it next, after I told her how great it was. Thank you for the opportunity to review this fantastic book.

  7. “Freedom Swimmer” is based – loosely, I assume – on the true story of a young boy growing up in 1960s China. Orphaned by the famine that resulted from the Great Leap Forward, Ming lives a hard life in a small village. His world view opens up somewhat when a group of city boys come to the village as part of a Communist Party re-education program. What happens during their stay in the village will ultimately change Ming’s view of his country and his future.

    Both my 9 year old son and I read the novel, and then discussed it.

    I had studied this period in China’s history reasonably extensively, and knew a lot of the background to the historical events depicted in the novel. This turned out to be really useful, as my son found the society and the way people acted about things like Mao’s Little Red Book the most challenging part of the novel. He found it hard to grasp that people would be so afraid of what might happen to them if they didn’t fall in line. He also was quite astonished by the cruelty of the way people treated each other during this time. The fact that I knew some of the background really helped me deal with his questions.

    This was partly because my son is at the lowest end of the recommended age range – a slightly older reader might not have found these ideas so challenging. I didn’t mind, though – it opened up some really good conversations for us. For me, as someone who knew about the period, it was an interesting way of personalising some very brutal government decisions.

    This is a well written and moving book. If anything, it understates a lot of the emotional issues, presumably in order not to overwhelm the young readers it is aimed at. Despite this it is still affecting. My son didn’t exactly enjoy it, but he did find it fascinating, and is still asking me questions about the historical reality. I noticed that last night he started re-reading it.

    This is a slightly challenging book for particularly young readers, and their parents may want to read the book too, in order to be prepared for questions. For the older readers, it personalises an important historical period and may spark some interest in finding out more. It should certainly make them think about how people treat each other.

    Overall, both my son and I would recommend this as an interesting novel that can be read either as a straight drama or as a window onto the real world – a way of leading young readers towards difficult issues.

  8. Thanks to Beauty and Lace for giving my son and I the opportunity to read Freedom Swimmer.
    This book explores a beautiful relationship between two boys who are friends through hardship. The story is based on Mao’s China and the revolution.
    Reading this book my son had told me on many occasions that I am so lucky that I did not have to grow up like Ming and Li.
    This book was beautifully written in a way where it teaches our young history through story telling.
    Congratulations Wai Chim on a brilliant novel.

  9. This book really got us talking about differences and hardships people face. It is a fantastic book that really made my son appreciate more of what he has now as he found it astounding I think to realise the reality of what some people go through. It was a real heartfelt story for my 13 yr old and my 10 yr old is excited to read it also because he is an advanced reader too. A truly well written book that has made its stamp on my son which is a talent in itself to the great author. Very reasonable price for people who are interested in buying this book and I think it is priceless for what the readers get out of this book.
    Thankyou so much as there is excitement in our house as we love books and I don`t want to give anything away as you have to read this book to really feel and experience the emotion of it all, highly recommended by us all here 🙂

  10. The Freedom Swimmer- Wai Chim Reviewed by Alex – 15

    This book is great; I’ve not really been a fan of Historical Fiction but this is the first Historical book I have really enjoyed. I like how the author chooses to revolve the story around two boys. Ming and Li are the best duo to tell the tale of China’s ‘Great Leap Forward’. Their perspectives are so interesting. The stories they tell are honest and spoken with truth. This book has made me come to see the struggles and hurdles China has been through and overcame.

    Ming and Li’s friendship is one of my favorite things about this book. Nothing separates these two and they have each other back through everything. Even in times where people are not to be trusted, no matter what, these two are always there for each other.

    I do find the book to be a bit slow at times. But even so, the book was indeed truly enjoyable.

    I would recommend this book to ages around 15+

  11. My 11 year old sister enjoyed this book. She had no trouble reading this book on her own (but she is an advanced reader for her age) and got through it pretty quickly. Miss 11 was intrigued by China’s Great Leap Forward and asked me whether this was something that actually happened – she was quite shocked to learn it did.

    Miss 11’s other comments on the book were:
    – I found the story very interesting
    – Li was my favourite character, I liked him.
    – I think the book was suitable for my age, but there were a couple of tricky words I wasn’t quite sure about
    – I liked how the chapters switched between the perspectives of the two main characters; Li and Ming, as this let me see the story from two different point of views
    – I liked the twist in the story when Li found a letter (but you will have to read it to find out what it said)
    – I would recommend this book to my friends
    – I rate it 7.5 stars out of 10

  12. The freedom swimmer is an absolutely wonderful book, such a page turner. I enjoyed reading it. It was quite enlightening how other cultures live compared to Australians. The hard times they faced were quite an eye opener. The Australian life style is like living like royalty compared to the struggles that they had to endure. It was fascinating how the boys swam all that way as it would have been extreamly dangourous and hard and they would have had immense persistenance to carry on. The freedom swimmer is an amazing book and I would rate it a 8.5 out of 10, thank you for giving me the opportunity to read and review this book it was truely an eye opener and wonderful book.
    J. 14 years old

  13. I read “Freedom swimmer” by Wai Chim and though it is aimed at the younger readers, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Reading the difficulties that the China has experienced, makes me appreciate my home that little more. Ming and Li are brillliant characters that have been well selected to tell the story. Currently, my 13 year old is reading it and is really enjoying it.

  14. Sorry for late review but my step son is a slow reader and is still only half way through this book. So far he has said he is enjoying it and we do set half an hour before lights out so he can read . Please note we have shared custody of him and he doesn’t like to take his book to mums as his little sister gets into his stuff . We are doing our best to encourage him to read more . I’m thinking I may have to sit with him and share the ready out aloud . Any other suggestions please let me know , as I don’t wish to turn him of reading .

    1. Nikki, no need to apologise. I had left chasing this one until late because I know that younger readers aren’t always as quick.

      I completely understand everything you are saying, and I too would hate to turn him off reading by pushing too hard. Reading together is always a fabulous together time, and allows you to talk through what you’re reading with him so that’s a great idea.

      I’m glad to hear that he is enjoying the book, thanks for getting in touch and I look forward to hearing his thoughts when he does finish the book. 🙂

  15. Freedom Swimmer is a wonderful book my son and I enjoyed reading
    Absolutely fascinating how other cultures live compared to our lives
    The hardships that they endured were quite a eye opener
    We were amazed that the boys undertook the swim which is extremely dangerous
    it showed the courage the boys went through. to beat the odds and prove they could do it
    The book is wonderfully written and I believe it has a great story line this is a book that all would enjoy reading i know we did

  16. This slight volume packs a powerful punch. And would recommend it to readers of all ages for its powerful message. My 12 yr old son found it hard to believe that the events in the book were so recent and so real. It shocked and troubled him that recent history could be so brutal. Made him think about the freedom we take for granted. He loved that the freedom swimmer ended on a happy note as it was the first book he has read with a deeper more somber topic that was from real life and not fictional.
    The friendship that endures and deepens between Ming and Li amid the difficult circumstances they find themselves is the most beautiful part of the book . And a good lesson for kids as well. The book was a great talking point between me and my son as it made politics more real seeing these events through the eyes of kids a little older than him. Overall a fantastic thought provoking read that does still manage to entertain with elements of adventure and survival.

  17. Sorry for late review, had trouble getting stepson to read this . Don’t think it was his kind of book to be honest . But he did persevere with it . So that was a good thing .

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