William Bell (born 27 October 1945; died 30 July 2016) was born in Toronto. After graduating from the University of Toronto, he moved to Orillia, Ontario, and began teaching high school English literature. In 1982, he was invited to teach at the Harbin University of Science and Technology in Harbin, China, where he taught English as a second language.
Bell returned to China in 1985 to teach at the Foreign Affairs College of China in Beijing. His relaxed approach to teaching made him popular with students. Over the course of the year, Bell learned much about their everyday lives and opinions. Much like his protagonist, Alex, Bell also spent the year exploring the city with a map and a bike.
This experience gave Bell a “vivid clarity” during the student protests and massacre at Tiananmen Square. It also made the prospect of writing Forbidden City very personal. “I was inspired by rage, then sadness, then a deep desire to get the story out in an accurate and lasting manner,” Bell said. He spent months tracking down news reports and other accounts of the events. He ultimately decided to write historical fiction on the subject because of a novel’s ability to help a reader “viscerally understand” events. “I felt a deep responsibility to get the story right,” Bell said, “and to tell it well enough that people outside China would know what really happened... and I knew that the [Chinese] government would lie.”
Forbidden City is presented as the diary of Alex Jackson. At the beginning of the book, Alex is 17 and recovering from the recent divorce of his parents. He has found solace chiefly in military history. He creates and paints miniature toy soldiers and devours maps and stories of conquests. He sees those who fight as heroes and anyone who objects to war as foolish.
Alex also considers the antics of his father, a CBC news cameraman, foolish. However, when his father invites him along on a trip to Beijing, Alex can’t resist the opportunity to see some of his treasured history up close.
Alex’s view begins to change as he is led around by his father’s guide, Lao Xu. Lao admits to Alex that his primary job is to report the activities of the people he is helping to government authorities. As he learns more about modern China, Alex becomes increasingly interested in student protests taking place in Tiananmen Square, just outside Beijing’s historic Forbidden City.
While reporting on the demonstrations, Alex’s father is apparently detained by authorities. Alex and Lao Xu go to the square in an attempt to find his father. While they are there, troops begin firing on the crowd. Alex attempts to film some of what is happening, but he is confronted by a soldier who shoots at Alex and Lao Xu. Lao Xu dies, but Alex is able to escape with a group of protestors. While Alex is recovering at a nearby house, Xin-hua, a girl he met earlier who helped save him from the Square, informs him of the other atrocities they have witnessed, including the burning of dead protesters’ bodies.
Alex resolves to find his father and tell the world what is happening. He and Xin-hua disguise themselves and set out for the Canadian embassy, documenting what they can with Alex’s camcorder. Along the way, they manage to escape from one set of soldiers but are detained by another. When the soldiers figure out that Xin-hua is a student who is helping a foreigner to escape the country, they shoot her in front of Alex. He flees, and eventually makes it to the embassy with the tapes hidden in his underwear. He learns that his father is also safe, and they go home.
Back in Canada, Alex’s family reunites to discuss what they have witnessed. Alex’s father feels a renewed importance in his work. Alex comes to regard his previous interest in military figures and history as misguided, and a disservice to people who are willing to stand up and fight for what they believe in. He now regards protesters like the ones he met in Tiananmen Square as the true heroes.
Reception and Legacy
Forbidden City became the most popular novel of Bell’s career. It was published in 11 countries and eight languages. Reviewers praised its depiction of the on-the-ground reality of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Publisher’s Weekly noted that, “Bell’s descriptions of the action in and around the Square are vivid and heartbreaking,” while Kirkus Reviews called the book “a good adventure — and an even better dissection of some of the possible events behind the headlines.”
Forbidden City received Ontario’s Ruth Schwarz Award for Excellence (now the Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Children’s Book Award) in 1991. It also won the Belgium Award for Excellence and the 1992 Ontario School Librarians Association Award.