Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Reading Through History: Dream Soul by Laurence Yep (2000)

Fifteen-year-old Joan Lee, her brother Bobby, and her sister Emily, are the children of Chinese immigrants living in 1927 West Virginia. Because they are not Christian, their parents have never allowed them to celebrate Christmas, a fact which makes the younger Lee children feel hopelessly left out every December. When the three children are invited to celebrate with a lonely neighbor who has no family of her own, they plead with their parents to allow them to join the festivities, but they are told they can only participate if their behavior is absolutely perfect. This is especially difficult for Emily, who is the troublemaker of the family, and for Joan, whose new classmate Victoria's permissive father seems so much more appealing than her own. It will take a health scare - and a supernatural experience involving her own father's soul - to help Joan realize how much her parents really do love her and her siblings.

This book has very little to do with major historical events of the 1920s, but I wanted read it because I've never read anything by Laurence Yep. I'm so glad I did, because his writing is truly delightful, and I feel that I have discovered a new favorite author. Through a series of memorable scenes from everyday life, this family story explores themes of alienation and isolation, obedience and kindness, fear and suspicion, envy and admiration. Relationships drive the story and help readers to understand the beauty and importance of familial love in a very natural and believable way. Though this type of story - especially when Christmas is involved - often comes across as cheesy and didactic, this one does not. The Lees are very real people, and even the parents who make things feel so difficult for their children, come across as sympathetic.

I didn't realize this when I selected it, but Dream Soul is actually a sequel to a 1991 novel called Star Fisher. Though I normally like to read books in publication order, I had no problem jumping right into Dream Soul without the benefit of reading the first book, so it seems that it is not necessary to read them in order. Though the main character is a teenager, she seems much younger, so readers as young as 8 or 9 would probably have no difficult relating to her or enjoying the book. In fact, Dream Soul is an ideal read-alike for the American Girl series, of which Laurence Yep has actually written a few titles. I wouldn't say this is a true historical fiction novel that teaches readers about the 1920s as a whole, but it is a lovely slice of life novel that explores a taste of the immigrant experience which young readers who like family stories will definitely enjoy.

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