Dragonwings by Laurence Yep

Set in the early part of the twentieth century, this Newbery Honor book is about the Chinese experience in the United States as not terribly welcome immigrants.

It begins in China with the protagonist, Moon Shadow, living and working on the family farm with his mother and grandmother–all the men in the family having left for the United States in hopes of making their fortune. Moon Shadow has never seen his father, as Windrider left for “The Golden Mountain” before Moon Shadow was born; he knows only what comes in his father’s letters from America, necessarily few and far between as letters are not only expensive but slow in that age of sail. The family lives on what the farm produces and on the money Windrider sends home.

One day, when Moon Shadow is eight (seven in ‘gwailo’ calculation), a distant cousin, Hand Clap, comes to visit from America. When Hand Clap returns to San Francisco, Moon Shadow goes with him. Moon Shadow is, not surprisingly, apprehensive of what the future will bring him: a father he does not know, a strange land populated by pallid demons, and the very real possibility that he will never see his mother and home again. His father is everything had hoped, though his facility with the frightening new technology, such as electric lights and radios, gives Moon Shadow pause as does his father’s claim to have been a dragon in a previous life. (Chinese dragons, while a force to be considered and not entirely amenable to humans, are not the vile evil that are the European variety. Rather they are wise elementals, bringing rain and other natural things.) Windrider is now an employee in the family-run laundry, and while Moon Shadow’s primary responsibility is to his schooling, he too helps when and where he can in the laundry.

His time in the foreign land does not start auspiciously: a mob of whites rampages through Chinatown, shattering windows and shouting racial epithets. There are troubles within the Chinese community and the family as well; Moon Shadow is roughed up by Black Dog, the ne’er-do-well son of the Company leader, Uncle Bright Star, which causes a rift in the company. Windrider takes Moon Shadow out of the Company and of Chinatown in order to pursue his own dream of flight; news of the Wright brothers’ flight in a rudimentary self-propelled airplane (little better than a kite with a powered propeller) have reached the West Coast and Windrider is possessed by the idea of flight as a man, rather than being satisfied with his memories of flight as a dragon. Fortunately, not all the demons are so viciously xenophobic, however: an automobile owner gives Windrider work after he and Moon Shadow have left the laundry, and the landlady of the boarding house where the two live is open minded about other cultures enough to genuinely befriend both Windrider and Moon Shadow. Later, she similarly reaches across the gulf to the other members of the Company…though it is perhaps lucky she does not understand Chinese! though they too meet her halfway in bridging that gap by the end of the novel.

Just as things are beginning to look hopeful, the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire ruptures the way of life the city had prior to that. Moon Shadow and Windrider must start over, with fewer resources, less money but the same strength of hope, and in the end, Windrider does achieve his dream of flight, though briefly. Perhaps more importantly in the long run, he reconciles with the Company, the members of which offer him a partnership in the business which will allow him to apply for an entry visa for his wife (Moon Shadow’s mother) to immigrate from China. There are obviously a number of issues yet remaining, but the central one of Windrider’s desire to fly and the Company’s dismissal of that desire as unattainable has been resolved.

It is, incidentally, based on a real event: a Chinese-American man did design and fly his own self-propelled aircraft, inspired by the Wright brothers, though I don’t think Yep found any evidence that the man was married or with his son.

Coming back to it almost forty years later, I can see how the writing’s simple enough to seem stilted to a mature reader, but I didn’t see that when I was the target demographic. It’s interesting to me as a cultural Caucasian as it’s told entirely from the Chinese perspective….here the Caucasians are the aliens, and not entirely pleasant ones at that. It’s as much about culture and acculturation, and bridging the gap between dreams and reality, one culture and another, as it is simply about “the Chinese Experience”.

I suspect this story made more of an impression on me than it might children who grew up in the Midwest; while there are most definitely non-white cultural groups residing elsewhere in the country, San Francisco was at the time of the Great Fire and is still today a significantly Asian city. While I’m not as familiar as I’d like to be with the Chinese culture and heritage, it wasn’t as strange to me as I suspect it would be, say, to residents of Madison, Wisconsin. That said, that very difference is why I hope it’s still held by libraries across the country, and still used in cultural diversity modules in schools!

A longer summary
Lesson Plans for Dragonwings


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