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Staff photo by Mark Kennedy / Author Eleanor McCallie Cooper poses with a copy of her new book "Dragonfly Dreams."

During the Great Depression, Chattanooga native Grace McCallie Divine made an unconventional (for the time) life choice.

While living in New York City in her early 30s, the classically trained musician and Girls Preparatory School Class of 2018 graduate married a Chinese man, a Cornell University-trained engineer named F.C. Liu, and declared her plans to move with her husband to China.

Thus began a compelling family story that spanned the middle decades of the 20th century.

From 1934 to 1974 — 40 years — Grace Divine Liu lived and raised a family in China during one of the most tumultuous periods in that country's history.

In 1934, a Chattanooga newspaper reported about her impending departure to China. The Page 1 article ran under the headline: "Chattanooga Girl Who Broke Racial Ties and Married Chinese Engineer to Visit Here."

"They were legally married [in New York], but it was shocking news in Chattanooga," says Eleanor McCallie Cooper, a cousin of Liu's who has studied her life.

During her four decades in China — which encompassed World War II, communist revolutionary Mao Zedong's rise to power and the subsequent Cultural Revolution — Liu fell out of touch with many of her Chattanooga relatives while being swept up in events in China.

Cooper, a Chattanooga civic leader with a doctorate in education, has spent much of her adult life documenting the life of Grace Divine Liu, who was her father's first cousin. Cooper said she didn't know about Liu until she turned 21 and was herself on her way to teach English in Japan. Only then did an aunt tell Cooper she was not the first family member to set out to Asia.

When Liu returned to the United States in 1974 at age 73 — her husband died in 1955 — Cooper lived with Liu in California for a time. In 2003 she wrote a historical account of her life: "Grace in China: An American Woman Beyond the Great Wall, 1934-1974."

This summer, Cooper published a second book about the life of her Chinese cousins, a young-adult novel called "Dragonfly Dreams" (Koehler Books, 184 pages, $29 hardcover), which is based on the Liu family's story of surviving WWII in China through the eyes of Liu's daughter, Nini.

During the WWII Japanese occupation of China, her family kept Liu hidden to shield her from internment camps built to hold Westerners. "Dragonfly Dreams" is based on first-hand accounts of what it was like for her three children, including Nini, to live through that period.

During a stretch of four years during WWII, none of Liu's American family members knew of her whereabouts, and some presumed she had been killed during the war.

Then, in early 1946, a young U.S. Marine private from Chattanooga, Giles Brooks, was part of the first wave of troops to liberate China. Incredibly, he found Liu and sent word back to Chattanooga that she was alive and well.

But more hardship was to come. After the communist takeover of China in 1949, Liu was caught up in the Cultural Revolution. As a college teacher she was put under house arrest and falsely accused of espionage.

"She was accused of being a spy and was dragged on stage in front of hundreds [of people]," Cooper said. " It was grim."

Under the communist regime, Liu was again unable to communicate with her relatives in the United States. Decades passed, and then in 1974 she got a letter through to The McCallie School here, which had been founded by some of her forebears, to inquire about her Chattanooga relatives.

Later that year she would return to the United States with her son William and lived for several years in Florida and California, where Cooper resided with the family for a time before Liu died.

"They were fascinating to talk to," Cooper recalls. "They had seen a world that I hadn't. They had seen things that I'd never experienced.

" For me, this [story] has been a part of my life. I had my work, my family, my marriage; but then I also have the journey I made with this family and the opportunity it gave me to tell their story."

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com.

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