Friday, May 6, 2011
Book Review: The Friendship Doll, by Kirby Larson (Delacorte, 2011)
Release date: May 10, 2011
Award-winning author Kirby Larson's newest historical fiction novel for children tells the story of four girls whose lives are intertwined with a remarkable nearly life-size Japanese doll. Larson was inspired by a photograph she found while researching her earlier book, Hattie Big Sky. This photo showed a 1920's Montana farm girl dressed in overalls standing next to an exquisitely detailed Japanese doll, dressed in traditional kimono. Larson's research unearthed the true story of 58 dolls sent to the United States from Japan in 1927 as Ambassadors of Friendship, a gift from Japanese schoolchildren. The dolls were three feet tall, with real human hair and handpainted faces, dressed in a silk kimono and accompanied by sets of miniature accessories, including chests, tea sets, parasols, and even tiny passports. Sadly, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the rise in anti-Japanese sentiment, most of the dolls were removed from public display, and while some have been recovered, others were lost forever.
Larson's tale follows the adventures of Miss Kanagawa, "a doll like none other," from the 1920's to the present day. Miss Kanagawa narrates parts of her own story, and her proud and courageous personality, imbued with true samurai spirit, shines through the narrative. She is honored to be an ambassador, with an important role to play; "I simply happen to be a doll," she writes.
Miss Kanagawa's musings are interspersed with the stories of four girls whose lives she influences, girls from very different backgrounds: Bunny, a rich upper-class girl from New York City, who is part of the contingent to welcome Miss Kanagawa to New York City; Lois, whose grandmother takes her to the Chicago World Fair in the height of the Depression, where Miss Kanagawa is on display; Willie Mae, a small-town Kentucky girl, who finds herself with a job reading to an elderly woman who now owns Miss Kanagawa; and Lucy, an Okie who with her out-of-work father travels to the West Coast in search of work. There Lucy, an aspiring writer, visits a small museum where she, too, encounters Miss Kanagawa.
Each of these stories could easily have become overly sentimental, but I found them charming and moving, as each girl learns what friendship is all about, and Miss Kanagawa herself learns to feel love bit by bit. The stories include rich historical settings, including the Chicago World's Fair, a packhorse librarian who delivers books to Willie Mae, and the plight of the Okies. It's a perfect book for doll-lovers, young and old, although you don't have to be a doll person to appreciate the book's message. For me, it made me remember some of the doll stories I loved as a little girl, particularly Dare Wright's Lonely Doll stories about Edith the doll, and Raggedy Ann and Andy's many adventures. This novel would be terrific fun for mother-daughter book groups to enjoy together.
While the book does not include any pictures of the real dolls, there is an author's note with additional information about the history of these unique ambassadors, as well as historical notes about each girl's story. The author also provides some information on contemporary Americans who are working to keep the spirit of the Friendship Dolls alive (see in particular Bill Gordon's website).