Summary: Alexander’s father is a cameraman for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and when he is offered the opportunity to help cover Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to the People’s Republic of China in 1989, he decides to take his son along for the trip. Fascinated by historical miltary operations, Alex hopes to see China’s Terra Cotta Warriors in person. Instead, Alex finds himself in the middle of a student protest after the death of a prominent Chinese official, seeking a more democratic China. The story flips from Gorbachev’s visit to the the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) moving in on the protestors in Tian An Men Square, and on June 4th, 1989, irreversable action is taken. Caught in the crossfire, Alex finds himself not only fighting for his life, but also trying to honour the story of those who did not survive.
Number of Pages: 198
Age Range: 14-16
Review: William Bell is one of my all-time, favourite Canadian authors. Skilled at writing powerful works of teen fiction that put teens right at the centre of conflict, Bell is perhaps best known for this novel, Forbidden City.
Based on the Tian An Men Square massacre, the execution of protesting students by the People’s Liberation Army of China that took place on June 3 and 4th, 1989, Forbidden City fleshes out this historical tragedy through the eyes of a seventeen year-old Canadian teen named Alex. Formerly a miltary buff, things take on new meaning for Alex when he finds himself in a real-life conflict where the lives of people he knows are in danger.
Bell uses Alex’s story to personalize the tragedy for teens, making history come alive in a gruesome but true way that will hook readers. Alex’s growth as a character throughout this ordeal is thought-provoking, and provides relateable insight into an experience that will change him forever.
As a piece of historical fiction this is a story that needs to be told and re-told, especially since the perpetrators of this tragedy continue to try and hide it, even twenty-five years later.
“Anyway, I’m only saying that I think that’s when I started getting interested in all this miltary stuff. What I like most about reading battle plans was the feeling that there were rules and strategies and traditions and everything was clear. And when I got into building model soldiers and reconstructing battles I like the feeling of control. I’d draw plans and try to picture the troop movements, attacks, feints, retreats, traps, all that, and I’d lose myself for hours in a world that made sense.” – Alex from Forbidden City by William Bell, page 12
“I passed a road sign with some characters and an arrow on it pointing down a side street. The arrow triggered thoughts about Ziu Ge-liang and the way he fooled both Cao Cao and Sun Quao. He did it by feigning one thing and doing another. Classic strategy, I thought. Then I remembered a famous quotation from Sun Zi’s The Art of War in the chapter on strategy. Make yourself appear to be weak in order to make the enemy proud and rash, he wrote. Even though you are capable, feign incompetence. The enemy would be put off guard.
Were the PLA playing games with the people? And, in their eyes, were the people now the enemy?” – Alex from Forbidden City by William Bell, pages 81-82
“If I told them that in China one of those little washing machines was a status symbol, they’d laugh. If I told them about Nai-nai’s house and how peaceful her courtyard was, they’d tell me to get real. But whose world was more real? Ours, or the world Xin-hua lived in?
She was different from the girls I knew, too. Really different. Their idea of a tragedy was running out of mousse or breaking a fingernail. They were a lot like the woman I had seen this morning on the movie billboard. They were almost all heavily into feminism and talked about being taken seriously as persons while they put on purple lipstick. I don’t know. Maybe I was being too hard on them. But nobody I knew was like Xin-hua. To me, she was a hero. A strong woman with more character than most of the kids I knew, male or female, put together.
Including me.” – Alex from Forbidden City by William Bell, page 167
“I took a long drink of my warm tea. ‘Nothing will be the same now, will it, Dad? Everything will be different, and we will too.'” – Alex from Forbidden City by William Bell, page 197