Yiyun Li's The Vagrants, published in 2009 by Random House established the author as a new and welcome voice in American fiction. The story is set during the Cultural Revolution in China near a fictional city called Muddy River. With about 80,000 people, the city was hastily built by the Chinese government to increase production for industry. The author focuses on the 1979 execution of a Chinese counterrevolutionary. Shan Gu, a former Red Guard leader, receives the death penalty for her writings and political stance.
The story also follows the actress, Kai, who has returned to Muddy River to work as a radio announcer. The stories of the two girls began when they were both in the first-grade together. Their stories come together again when they meet on execution day.
Gu participated in the Cultural Revolution and was imprisoned for about a decade. She had become insane and was given a new trial, but received the death sentence. Her execution culminates a series of “Denunciation Ceremonies” that take place in various parts of the city. It is a holiday of sorts with songs and slogans, and people are given a day off to celebrate. Gu is scheduled to be executed after a denunciation ceremony. This event is presided over by the city’s radio announcer, Kai. Gu does not speak at the ceremony because her vocal chords have been taken out. Furthermore, Kai’s husband extracted Gu’s kidneys while she was still alive for transplant to an official just before she is shot.
Readers meet Gu’s family, neighbors, and friends and how their lives are forever changed by her life and death. Shan’s parents are in the deepest form of despair while other people celebrate. One such celebrant is a girl named Nini who was born deformed after Gu kicked Nini’s mother in the stomach while she was pregnant.
Reviewers praise Li for producing a thoughtful and powerful novel. She does not condemn her characters or make easy choices in revealing what they are capable of in the intensity of the Cultural Revolution in China. She illustrates the challenges of living in a despotic nation.