How Meindert DeJong’s The House of Sixty Fathers breaks my heart

by Mr. Sheehy

I don’t generally cry at books. It’s not because I am tough; I can choke up at slightest twist of emotionalism in a sub-par movie or at a close up view of another individual shedding tears. I sometimes wonder if my dry-eyed habit with books comes because when reading I have enough lead-time to steel myself for the event, or because when coming to such a time my eyes fly down the page almost against my will and I am given a clue before the full impact of the scene can overcome me. When reading Bleak House recently, I had to grab a piece of paper and cover the bottom half of the page when I reached a particularly moving climax. I knew some key piece of information was coming, and without the paper I could not ensure that my eye would not catch it a tad early.

I did tear up while reading about Abigail Adams’s death in David McCullough’s John Adams. It caught me off guard a bit; since women tend to outlast their mates I kind of assumed she would do the same. She was such a wonderful person, too, and the way McCullough shared Adams’s reaction to his wife’s death worked at my heart in a deep way.

I also teared up this weekend when I finished a children’s book I was curious about: Meindert DeJong’s The House of Sixty Fathers. My wife read The Wheel on the School to my eldest daughter recently and they enjoyed it, and I was curious about DeJong’s other work since The Wheel seemed to be of a style I could greatly appreciate. Sixty Fathers was wonderful, and though it is too intense for my five-year old (she still insists when we read anything suspenseful, “Don’t read me the bad parts!”) I am putting it on the Must-read list for later.

In it, Tien Pao, a small boy in China, gets separated from his family during the Japanese occupation of World War II. His sampan floats behind the enemy lines and he and his little pig, whom he names Glory-of-the-Republic, struggle to follow the river back to his family. Along the way he helps an American pilot escape the Japanese and gets adopted by 60 members of a bomb squadron who are friends of that rescued soldier.

I loved the book and was fully choked up by the final scenes. Through and after all of it, however, one little image, tossed in as Tien Pao climbs ashore after his sampan has floated far away from his family, captures the painfully moving aspect of this book and sums up the general nature of its theme–that heartbreaking reality of what happens to children in a time of war. Tien Pao had been in charge of his family’s pig and three ducklings, which means they are on the sampan with him when it breaks away, and as he wades to shore he realizes he will not be able to bring the ducklings with him for his travels over land.

He looked at the ducklings, then he shut his eyes tight and gave the dishpan a hard shove back into the bay. Without looking back, Tien Pao climbed up from the river and up the first rocky cliff.

On top of the cliff, Tien Pao turned. The empty sampan had pulled back into the current; it was going down the river. Below in the bay the white dishpan drifted and twirled. Two ducklings swam in the dishpan, but one must have gone overboard with Tien Pao’s hard, blind shove. The little duckling was chasing the dishpan, scrambling desperately to get out of the big river back into its little dishpan home. When he saw that, Tien Pao’s lips trembled. He turned away, and looked no more toward the river. (39)

In books where children are learning to read with more sophistication, I love a good, rich symbol that helps them see how symbolism and metaphor can work. The dog in Of Mice and Men serves such a purpose–it might be heavy-handed and obvious to a mature reader, but to one getting started, it is perfectly catch-able and if not caught, comprehensible with guidance. In Sixty Fathers, this duckling symbol, while apparent, is actually more flexible than Steinbeck’s, as its meaning ranges farther than the story itself.

Within the story, that little duckling serves as a symbol of Tien Pao’s predicament, but more powerfully, beyond the book, it expresses the painful reality of separation that Tien Pao’s story does not achieve. It is so painful that the above passage is what convinced me that my daughter was not ready for the book. It is far too sad to think about. My daughter would surely ask for reassurance about the duck’s chances, but having read what DeJong has written, I know that duckling will not reenter the pan. DeJong has not led me to believe it, no matter how desperately I want it to be true.

The author’s own story affirms the poignancy of the duckling. The back of the book explains that DeJong wrote the story as a kind of autobiography.

During World War II Mr. DeJong was official historian for the Chinese-American Composite Wing, which was part of Chennault’s famous Fourteenth Air Force. A young Chinese war orphan, the Tien Pao of this story, was adopted by DeJong’s outfit. The boy chose DeJong as his special “father,” and the two were devoted to one another.

Mr. DeJong wanted to bring the boy back to the United States with him, but because of legal complications he was unable to do so. However, the men in the outfit left the youngster well provided for when they returned to America. The Communists then took over that section of China, and DeJong has never heard what happened to the boy.

You can clearly detect that long-lasting heart-wrench in DeJong’s dedication:

For Wally, in memory of the compound in Peishiyi, China, and of little, lost Panza

By the end of The House of Sixty Fathers, Tien Pao experiences a happy ending–one that did not occur for Panza, the boy DeJong vividly remembers. In that light the little duckling serves more as a symbol of DeJong’s little boy than Tien Pao, and the reality of that moment with the dishpan is perhaps why it is the image that stays in my mind and presses upon my heart.

As I think back to this little, seemingly forgotten children’s novel, I realize it is the happy ending that made me cry, but it is that early symbolic moment that breaks my heart.

Thanks for reading.