Encarta Dictionary defines “long” as seeming to last forever, beyond what is wanted and extending considerable distance. The Red Army’s incredible Long March exemplifies the word. In Unbound: A True Story of War, Love, and Survival Dean King brilliantly renders the histories of the 30 women who joined 86,000 soldiers of the Red Army in a retreat from Chiang Kaishek’s Nationalist Army. The majority of the men died on the journey — all of the women survived.
The nearly 5,000-mile trek over 18 months subjected the army to the most wretched deprivations you can imagine. They struggled through unforgiving terrain while Chiang’s American-made fighters bombed them and the local warlords attacked. Keeping their promise of equality, the Communists banned foot binding, abandonment of girl babies and the sale of girls into marriage. Communism’s initial idealism was degraded by its paranoia. While many were lost to battle, disease, and the environment, their own army executed an inordinate number after denouncing them as nationalists.
The 30 women who joined Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai in the Red Army ranged in age from 10 to 34. Strong and resourceful, they carried the sick, sewed shoes and clothing, searched for herbs for healing and foraged for food. They even spun and wove wool. The army carried costumes and sets so these women could entertain the troops after a long day’s march. Most importantly, they were in charge of propaganda, recruiting hundreds of soldiers along the way as well as women and nurses. As they marched, the men treated the women as equals, and helped them as they would any comrade in arms.
Dean King’s scrupulous research includes interviewing survivors of the Long March and actually walking portions of it. Their stories will serve to reinforce the belief that all women have not only physical strength, but emotional fortitude, staunch convictions, and a determination to save not only themselves but their fellow travelers as well. One note: the publishers have very cleverly added a bookmark listing the women of the march. It’s a great idea, but they should have put it in the front of the book!