The children of Ku Fu village are struck with a terrible illness. Number Ten Ox seeks out Li Kao, a wise man with a slight flaw in his character. Together, the two pursue a trail that leads to evil and wonder – all with a wry sense of humor.
It’s ironic that so many stories of good and evil don’t recognize their own biases. The story of Number Ten Ox, the embodiment of faithful, loyal goodness, starts in a village built on sericulture. In describing this pleasant practice, Hughart somehow leaves out the part where silk is harvested by drowning the silkworms in hot or boiling water.
That fairly substantial moment of dissonance aside, the story is charming and well told. As narrator, Number Ten Ox’s tongue is firmly in his cheek, but not so much that it interferes with his storytelling. He and Li Kao wander all over China, discovering secrets, escaping danger, and having a good time – all while keeping the ill children carefully in mind. Hughart has a nice touch, and the balance between comedy and drama, while well on the side of comedy, doesn’t descend into farce.
Probably most readers won’t particularly care about the facts of silk production. The rest have undoubtedly overlooked worse in popular fiction. I certainly have, but for some reason the treatment here troubled me more than usual, and dropped my rating half a star. If you can get past the beginning, the bulk of the book is touching and funny and quite enjoyable.