Source of book: Audiobook from the library.
I chose this book for our most recent trip after searching for modern books for older kids. Little did I know that my kids were already familiar with the author from a series of picture books like Dim Sum for Everyone.
This book is geared toward ages 9-12, more or less. Since my kids are used to reading above their level - and because the older kids and I don’t mine well written kid books - this one worked out well.
Minli is a young girl, an only child, living in poverty at the foot of “Fruitless Mountain.” Her father, the imaginative parent, tells her stories of myth and legend about the Old Man of the Moon, who holds the Book of Fortune, and weaves the future out of red threads. In these stories, Fruitless Mountain is the heart of a dragon who died of a broken heart after alienating her children. Minli’s mother, on the other hand, is ground down by poverty, and sighs so often that Minli decides to set out and look for the Old Man of the Moon and ask how she can change the family’s fortune.
She sets out after receiving information from a talking goldfish she has set free, and heads west toward Endless Mountain, the home of the Old Man of the Moon. Along the way, she frees a dragon who has been captured by monkeys, is befriended by a host of interesting characters, and finally must make a difficult choice between her own desires and the needs of others.
Throughout the book are interspersed the fantastic tales that make up the underlying legend behind the story. It turns out that these stories are true - and connected - and as they unfold, Minli comes to learn the story of the greedy magistrate and how his discontent has destroyed him even as he tries to destroy those who he feels have “wronged” him by their happiness. The underlying theme, both of the myths and the story itself, is that of the root of happiness: thankfulness.
The use of the myths reminds me a great deal of one of my favorite books of all time, Watership Down, which blends adventure, a metaphor for totalitarianism, and the myth of El-ahrairah, which draws from the “monomyth.” In this case too, the “myths” are based on truth, and illuminate the adventures as they happen.
Another book that this one reminded me of was The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland, in that the heroine as accompanied by a dragon. (Okay, a wyvern in the one book, a Chinese dragon in the other…) Both sidekicks are beset by flaws which prevent them from being what they should, and yet each is loyal and good-hearted.
This is a well-written story, with a good balance of danger and heroism, love and compassion. Minli’s parents are neither simple caricatures nor static characters. They too change and grow as the story progresses. I was also impressed by the careful work the author did to weave all of the myths into a coherent and detailed back story. And yet, despite the layers, it doesn’t feel heavy handed either. A light and fine touch.
A bit, perhaps, like the illustrations, also by Grace Lin. We missed out (except for the cover art) because we had the audiobook. However, the art itself has been noted by reviewers as beautiful, and, after searching for some, I agree.
The audiobook version is narrated by Janet Song, who does a fine job. Whether in audio or paper form, this is a worthwhile and engrossing book.