The House of Sixty Fathers

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Book Review

In The House of Sixty Fathers by Meindert DeJong, with illustrations by Maurice Sendak, a boy named Tien Pao escapes his war-torn village and is separated from his family. American soldiers help the boy find his parents after he saves their lieutenant.

Plot Summary

When Japanese soldiers burn Tien Pao’s village, his family escapes to Hengyang, China, on a small boat called a sampan. Tien Pao’s parents look for work at an American military airfield. They take Tien Pao’s baby sister and tell the boy to stay on the boat until they return. The first day, the boy heeds another refugee’s suggestion and shuttles an American soldier across the river for money. Although the generous sum allows the family to eat, Tien Pao’s father is still angry at him for not staying put as he was instructed.

While Tien Pao rests the next day, the boat breaks loose and carries him back into enemy territory. He awakens in terror and prays to the river god for help. His only comfort on the stormy water is the family’s pig, which he names Beauty-of-the-Republic after his sister.

Tien Pao reaches land and hides out in caves during the dayg. He knows even his own hungry countrymen would take his pig for food. He walks at night, nearly collapsing with starvation. One day, he sees the Japanese shoot down an American plane. Tien Pao helps the wounded airman escape. He recognizes the man as the generous soldier he shuttled across the river the first night in Hengyang. The boy feels relieved to have the airman with him, and he cares for the man as they slowly hike out of the danger zone. A group of Chinese guerrillas finds Tien Pao and the American. They take the airman away on a stretcher and sneak Tien Pao and his pig back to Hengyang.

The Japanese have entered Hengyang now, and the Chinese are fleeing en masse by train. The boy tries to hunt down his parents and sister in the crowds, and two American soldiers find him just before he blacks out from hunger. They take him and Glory-of-the-Republic back to their barracks, where sixty soldiers reside. Once he’s awake, they bring in a translator and ask him to tell his story. They’re excited to learn he is the boy who saved their squadron leader, Lieutenant Hamsun. They all dote on him, and the Chinese interpreter calls them Tien Pao’s sixty fathers. Tien Pao is grateful but still determined to find his own parents. The soldiers try to help him realize this dream but feel there’s little hope.

When the recovering Lt. Hamsun returns to the base, he and Tien Pao enjoy a happy reunion. He flies the boy over the crowds so Tien Pao can get a better look for his family. Tien Pao sees his mother at the airfield and is reunited with his parents.

Christian Beliefs

None.

Other Belief Systems

Tien Pao frequently prays to the river god for help and strength. He tries to comfort himself by remembering the river god’s goodness in allowing his family to escape on the boat. As he walks along, delirious with hunger, he wonders if there are evil spirits in the mountains like his people say.

Authority Roles

Tien Pao’s parents seek work in Hengyang immediately so the family won’t starve. When Tien Pao shuttles a soldier across the river for money, his father is angry and says he can no longer trust his son to obey him. Both parents are relieved and happy to be reunited with their son. Lt. Hamsun pays Tien Pao generously for shuttling him and treats Tien Pao with kindness while they’re hiding out. Hamsun’s men dote on Tien Pao and want to adopt the boy as their own.

Profanity & Violence

Many images of battle appear. The Japanese burn Tien Pao’s city and sink boats full of Chinese families trying to escape. People scream and horses bleed after being hit by bullets and explosives. Chinese people impacted by the Japanese attacks are driven to starvation. Some eat mud, weeds or their own pets.

Sexual Content

None.

Discussion Topics

Why does Tien Pao’s father get so angry at him the first night in Hengyang? Why does Tien Pao disobey his father? When have you disobeyed a parent because you thought you had a good reason for doing so? What happened?

Why do the doctor and soldiers let Tien Pao keep looking for his parents, even though they don’t think he’ll ever find them? In what other ways do they help the boy? When have you had someone help and care for you during a hard time?

Why does Tien Pao hide his pig, even though people are starving all around him? What would you have done in his situation?

If you had to escape from your home, like Tien Pao and his family, what would you take with you? Why would you choose these items?

If you had been Tien Pao, would you have been most scared by nearly starving, witnessing brutal battles, being trapped on a stormy sea, watching your village burn or being separated from your parents? Explain your answer.

Additional Comments

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book’s review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

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