Yep, Laurence. Dragons of Silk. New York: Harper, 2011. ISBN 9780060275181
Part of Yep’s Golden Mountain Chronicles, Dragons of Silk follows four girls who span several generations of the same family. However, beyond blood, love and loss, the tale of the Weaving Maid, and honoring the past, the one thing that binds all of the girls together is silk. As the original Lily’s mother says, “Silk is in our blood.”
The novel begins with a telling of the Weaving Maid legend. The story begins with two different characters narrating their own chapters (they don’t always alternate every chapter), Lily the younger sister who is a dreamer with her head in the clouds and making up “what if” stories, and Swallow the older sister who is seen as sensible though it is mentioned by both Swallow and her mother that she was a dreamer before her father started using Demon Mud (opium). Swallow lives in the girls house with other unmarried girls who are no longer considered children. Her house is going to hold the festival for the Weaving Maid, with special emphasis to the Sisters (which we learn later is uncommon; usually the emphasis is on the Maid and her Cowboy).
While Swallow is attempting to prepare for the celebration, her father has come home, claiming to no longer be under the influence of opium. Lily and Swallow’s mother won’t let him anywhere near their precious silk worms though. Especially since after he spent all of their money on opium last time, they are already renting the house they live in and the pond they keep. Swallow doesn’t trust him. Last time, he was angry enough to hit both Swallow and her mother. Swallow doesn’t want Lily to go through that as well. On the night of the Weaving Maid’s festival, everything goes wrong for the family. The festival is a success, but the girls’ father stole the recent batch of silk. With no other way to settle their debt, Swallow sells herself into slavery, but not before imparting one final piece of advice to Lily. Keep the family safe and happy.
The next part follows Little Swallow, Lily’s granddaughter and a worker at a steam powered silk reeling factory. Again the themes of love and loss, the Weaving Maid, and honoring Swallow’s wish to be safe and happy appear. For Little Swallow it is loss of home and country as she finally agrees to go with Lucky to the Golden Mountain, also known as California.
The third (and shortest) section is about Young Swallow (whose real name is Lillian), Little Swallow’s granddaughter who has just lost her luxurious way of life, and her generous grandfather Lucky, to the Great Depression. However, while Swallow gave up herself, the first Lily gave up her very nature (being a dreamer), and Little Swallow gave up her country, Lillian must give up her first love, playing the violin. Instead, living in a small one bedroom apartment with her two younger siblings, her mother who acts like a child, and Little Swallow, Lillian learns about silk as Little Swallow takes apart her fancy silk dresses to sew silk shirts for her family instead.
The next to last section is about Lillian (she doesn’t really go by Young Swallow anymore) and Rosie (Lillian’s oldest child). Rosie wants to be a fashion designer and is furious with her mother when she is told she should look into accepting the job at the bank that has been offered to her. As Lillian watches Rosie close off when Lillian belittles her designs, she remembers her own sacrifice of the violin as well as her ancestors’ continuing sacrifice. When an opportunity to help her dreaming daughter drops in her lap, Lillian takes it and gets Rosie a foot in the door of the fashion industry. There is a final short section, though it is more of an epilogue with a twist.
This would be a great book to cover with a history class. It covers the Depression and the California Gold Rush, so it could be used in conjunction with US history. However, the first two sections cover Chinese history and would be better suited to world history or a study of the drug trade (both the old trade and the modern). While this book is a part of a series, it can be read alone without any confusion.
Kirkus—“ Silk, an ancient legend and family history tie several generations of formidable females together over three centuries in this conclusion to Yep’s monumental Golden Mountain Chronicles. Beginning in 1835 and ending in 2011, the novel artfully weaves a tapestry made up of threads of silk production, Chinese history and folklore and immigrants’ eventual success in America, the “Golden Mountain.” Yep traces girls and women through to their modern descendants, who bear the collective memories of ancestors, each of whom had to make a heart-wrenching, life-changing sacrifice in her own time.”
Kirkus. Kirkus Reviews. August 2011. (Vol. 79, No. 15). Accessed via CLCD at http://ezproxy.twu.edu:4529/index.php/jbookdetail/jqbookdetail?page=1&pos=1&isbn=9780060275181