Nineteen-year-old Joy Louie has run away from her home in 1950s America to start a new life in China. Idealistic and unafraid, she believes that Chairman Mao is on the side of the people, despite what her family keeps telling her. How can she trust them, when she has just learned that her parents have lied to her for her whole life, that her mother Pearl is really her aunt and that her real father is a famous artist who has been living in China all these years?
Joy arrives in Green Dragon Village, where families live in crowded, windowless huts and eke out a meagre existence from the red soil. And where a handsome young comrade catches her eye... Meanwhile, Pearl returns to China to bring her daughter home - if she can. For Mao has launched his Great Leap Forward, and each passing season brings ever greater hardship to cities and rural communes alike. Joy must rely on her skill as a painter and Pearl must use her contacts from her decadent childhood in 1930s Shanghai to find a way to safety, and a chance of joy for them both.