About the Author

Paulette Bourgeois

Paulette Bourgeois is best-known for creating Franklin the Turtle, the character who appears in picture books illustrated by Brenda Clark. The books have sold more than 50 million copies around the world and have been translated into 38 languages. An animated television series, merchandise, DVD's and full-feature movies are based on the character. She is also the author of Changes in You and Me, books about adolescence, Oma's Quilt which is also a short animated film created by the National Film Board of Canada, Big Sarah's Little Boots and more. Paulette has also written dozens of non fiction books for children including the Amazing series, the In My Neighbourhood series, The Sun, and The Moon. She has been a columnist for Homemaker's Magazine, written for Canadian Living, Chatelaine and Today's Parent and she provided the concept and initial research for,"The Bee Talker" which aired on CBC TV's The Nature of Things. Her most recent book, You, Me and my O.T., a picture book for the Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists. Many of her books have been award-winners. In 2003, she became a Member of the Order of Canada and in 2007, she received an Honourary Doctor of Laws from her alma mater, The University of Western Ontario. She earned a BSc. in Occupational Therapy at UWO, attended Carleton University for a one-year graduate program in journalism, and in 2009 she graduated with a MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. Her thesis, a screenplay has been optioned by a Vancouver production company. Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada on July 20, 1951. She has two adult children, Natalie and Gordon and lives in Toronto, Canada and El Coco, Costa Rica.

Books by this Author
Big Sarah's Little Boots

Big Sarah's Little Boots

edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback
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Canadian Fire Fighters

Canadian Fire Fighters

edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover
tagged : careers
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Changes In You & Me

A Book About Puberty Mostly For Girls
edition:Paperback
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Changes In You and Me

A Book About Puberty Mostly for Boys
edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback Paperback
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Changes In You And Me

A Book About Puberty Mostly For Boys
edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback Paperback
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Fire Fighters

Fire Fighters

edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover
tagged : careers
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Firefighters

Firefighters

edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback
tagged : beginner
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Oma's Quilt

Oma's Quilt

edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback
tagged :
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Too Many Chickens

Too Many Chickens

edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback Hardcover
tagged :
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Li Jun and the Iron Road
Excerpt

Chapter One

The rooster in the Ho household’s courtyard crowed loudly to greet the dawn and the caged birds in the kitchen answered with sweet, high melodies. Li Jun stretched and yawned, warmed by the first rays of sun streaming through the tiny window in her servant’s quarters. Such a glorious day, she thought. Then she remembered — in moments she’d be summoned by First Wife screeching like a cat in a sack about to be drowned. For the past three long years, Li Jun had wakened to the same opera. And there it was again: “Lazy girl! Come here! My chamber pot is full and the stink is making me green.” “Coming, Mistress. I will bring your breakfast,” she would always answer. Li Jun splashed water on her face, quickly twisted her waist-length hair into two braids that she coiled around her ears, pulled on her trousers and jacket. Darn! There was a stain on her sleeve. She spat on her finger and dabbed at the stain but it didn’t change — still dark and greasy. Muttering to herself, she ran from her room on the far side of the courtyard to the main house. Until she arrived in Hong Kong as a twelve-year-old country girl to work as a mui jai, a “little sister,” she’d never seen such wealth, never imagined room upon room filled with carved wooden furniture, floors polished to a sheen, thick carpets everywhere, and gas lamps glowing in the dining room at night. But that was three years ago and back then she also never imagined that she would be the one on her hands and knees polishing those floors and washing the fine china until the skin on her hands was raw. The worst of her jobs? Reaching under the Ho family beds every morning to remove their chamber pots and empty them onto the garden vegetables. She plugged her nose and chewed on a piece of mint from the garden to keep from gagging, then washed the pots until they gleamed. Cook was busy in the kitchen when Li Jun came to fetch First Wife’s breakfast. On the tray was a bowl of steaming congee, plump with fish and pickled vegetables, plus a pot of jasmine tea. Li Jun was tempted to dip her finger into the porridge for just a taste — it looked so appetizing and her stomach ached with hunger. But later she would eat her breakfast of cold rice and maybe, if Cook was in a good mood, he’d throw in a mouthful of wilted greens. First Wife squawked from her bedroom even more loudly. Cook winced and motioned Li Jun to head upstairs. “How do you stand it, day after day?” she asked him. He hesitated. “She wasn’t always this bad. In fact, she was happy until she found she couldn’t have children. Mr. Ho wanted a son, so he found Second Wife. Now First Wife is miserable with everyone.” Second wife was big in the belly soon after coming to the house and gave birth to a son. First Wife wanted to send her away and raise the boy as her own but Mr. Ho had his own reasons for keeping Second Wife around. She was not much older than Li Jun, dainty and very pretty, and she warmed his bed most nights. Li Jun had scant sympathy for the tyrant upstairs. Still, she thought it was sad that First Wife had no children and her husband had brought a woman half her age with twice her beauty into her house. She knew that her father, far away in Gold Mountain, was faithful to her mother. They had been strangers on their wedding night, as in all arranged marriages, but love had blossomed and Li Jun remembered how tender they were with one another. In all her time as a servant girl, not a day passed that Li Jun didn’t long to be back with her family in her cottage by the river in Ping Wei. It had been a simple life full of joy and abundance. Her father, Li Man, taught at the village school; her mother, Shuqin, farmed the fields and tended to the house and garden. Li Jun was a carefree child then, but now it all seemed like a dream, a lifetime ago. Terrible things happened all over Guangdong. Li Man led the local farmers in their revolt against the brutal and greedy Manchu warlords, but lost the battle and his teaching job. Then, in revenge, their village was burned to the ground. He moved his family downriver, along with the other villagers, but their crops failed and they faced starvation. Li Man decided the only way to avoid disaster was to go off to “Gold Mountain” in America. There he would search for gold — they said it was lying in the ditches. There he would make his fortune and keep his family alive. He would send money every month, and when he was rich he would come back to them. At first his letters arrived full of love and longing, with enough money to support the two of them. Then, mysteriously, the letters stopped and there was nothing they could … Enough! Li Jun chided herself. Stop daydreaming and get to work. She was at First Wife’s door now. She knocked gently on it and carefully balanced the tray as she entered. But a gust of wind slammed the door shut behind her with a resounding THUD. First Wife, startled by the noise, jumped up in her bed, pulled back her quilt, and lifted a thick, dimpled leg over the side, balancing precariously on one elbow and groaning with the effort of sitting up. “Wait! I’ll help you,” cried Li Jun, setting the tray down on the ornate dresser. But no — she was too late. First Wife kicked over her chamber pot and the fetid contents pooled in a disgusting mess by the bed. “You stupid girl! This is your fault for slamming that door. And what’s this? There’s a spot on your sleeve. Such a dirty mui jai! Your mother would be ashamed.” You know nothing of my family! Li Jun wanted to shout. How dare you degrade me? My father was a teacher, a brave man with a fire in his soul to do what was right! My mother was proud of me. Didn’t I give up everything — the chance for school, for a husband — to come here to work for you, you fat cow? But instead she clamped her lips together, took a deep breath, and bowed to her mistress. More than anything, Li Jun knew she must be obedient. She’d heard what happened to uppity servants. Long ago when a cook’s helper spoke back to First Wife, his back was caned to a bloody pulp. As she wiped up the spill and scrubbed the floor, she had only one thought: the old cow was right when she said her chamber pot made her feel green. Her shit did stink more than most. More than ever, Li Jun wished she was at home. She would never forget the day her world changed forever. It was her twelfth birthday and her mother had scrounged enough to buy the rarest of treats — a bean cake. Li Jun took a bite and swooned with the pleasure at the first taste of the sweet paste. There had been no sweets for a long time. Not since a year before, at Chinese New Year, when they received a letter from her father, along with most of his wages from the past months. He wrote that the gold rush in America was over, so he was travelling north to British Columbia, the new Gold Mountain, to find work. There was still gold in those rivers and a railroad was being built right across Canada from the Pacific to the Atlantic coasts. It was a long letter, full of excitement. Canada was a new Dominion, no longer under direct rule of Britain. Many people in British Columbia wanted to join the United States but the first prime minister of Canada promised them an iron road, a railroad that would link the vast nation from sea to sea. It was a big country, Li Man wrote, even bigger than the ocean he had crossed from China to the new world! The railway lines in the east were nearly finished but building the western track through the forests and mountains of British Columbia was so dangerous that it was way behind schedule. Li Man wrote that a powerful contractor was hiring Chinese workers to clear the land, blast tunnels through rock, and lay the track in the Rocky Mountains. He was excited by his prospects and promised his wife and daughter that once he was settled up in Canada, he would send lots of money back to them. That was his last letter. Li Jun and her mother read it over every day, as they waited for more news and the promised money. But they never came. Li Jun offered a bite of her bean cake to Shuqin, who shook her head no and smiled as her daughter devoured the birthday gift. But Li Jun was worried. Her mother’s eyes were dark as stone, and underneath purple half moons had settled into deep hollows. She took her hand. “Have you had bad news from Father?” Shuqin ignored the question. “Is the cake good?” she asked. Li Jun was not a child; she knew her mother was hiding something dreadful. “He’s dead, isn’t he?” Her mother sighed and looked away as if gathering her strength to answer. “Li Jun, I don’t know. He hasn’t sent money in more than a year. He doesn’t write. There must be some explanation. Your father is a good man. He’s brave too. He would never abandon us. But look at you — you’re little more than skin stretched over bones. We’re starving. The roof is broken, and when the rains come it will fall in and we have no money to fix it.” Li Jun had an idea. “I’ll quit school and sell our vegetables in the market.” “Sweet girl, we don’t have enough vegetables to feed ourselves, never mind sell to others. Besides, it’s too dangerous here now. Every day I hear of another girl kidnapped and sold as a slave … or worse.” Li Jun pretended she didn’t know what worse meant, but she did. Everyone in the village talked. Girls were stolen, then beaten and forced into brothels to please men with their bodies. They were never seen again. Li Jun felt her stomach churn as her mother continued. “The head of our clan has made me an offer we cannot refuse. You will become a mui jai in Hong Kong for Mr. Ho. He is a rich man who needs help with his son and his two wives.” “A little sister?” said Li Jun. She understood exactly what that meant. She would be loaned to the Ho family as a servant. Her mother would get money, enough to survive, in exchange for her servitude. She forced back her tears and stifled the urge to scream: “NO!” She had no choice but to accept her mother’s decision. It was her duty. “It won’t be for long, Li Jun,” said her mother gently. “Once your father returns, he will pay back the debt to Mr. Ho, we will be a family again, and we will find you a good husband.” The next day, as she embraced her mother and said goodbye, Li Jun made herself a promise. She would not be a servant forever. She would find another way to support the two of them. She was like her father — brave. And there was a fire burning in her soul, too. WHOMP! A fan hit her on the head. She put up both hands to protect herself from First Wife’s anger. “Pay attention, stupid girl! Take away my tray and lay out my clothes. I am meeting with my mah-jong group this afternoon and I plan to look particularly fetching as I take all the winnings.” Li Jun snapped back to the present. To make First Wife look “fetching” would take much more than the fanciest silk dress. It would take a miracle.

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