When I learned that Kirby Larson had written a new book and was offered a chance to review it, I quickly said yes. I loved Hattie Big Sky (linked to my review) enough to read it again before I interviewed Kirby Larson as a part of a blog tour, so I was naturally very eager to read another middle grade novel by this author. Larson’s novels are in a genre that was my first love as a child and still holds a very special place in my heart today, although my taste in reading materials has broadened. She writes historical fiction that is very well researched and based on intriguing and unusual tidbits of history.
The Friendship Doll is really a collection of stories about five children whose lives are affected by a Miss Kanagawa, a Japanese ambassador doll sent to the U.S. in 1927 on a mission to forge ties of goodwill between the two countries. This is a shortened version of the jacket flap summary, borrowed from the author’s website:
I am Miss Kanagawa. In 1927, my 57 doll-sisters and I were sent from Japan to America as Ambassadors of Friendship. Our work wasn’t all peach blossoms and tea cakes. My story will take you from New York to Oregon, during the Great Depression. Though few in this tale are as fascinating as I, their stories won’t be an unpleasant diversion. You will make the acquaintance of Bunny, bent on revenge; Lois, with her head in the clouds; Willie Mae, who not only awakened my heart, but broke it; and Lucy, a friend so dear, not even war could part us. I have put this tale to paper because from those 58 Friendship Dolls only 45 remain. I know that someone who chooses this book is capable of solving the mystery of the missing sisters. Perhaps that someone is you.
Of course, the dolls were real, but the children are fictional. The stories begin in 1927 in Japan, move to New York in short order, and then it’s on to Illinois, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Washington (and some places in betwen) and the present time. All of the stories save the last one relate how people lived and coped during the Great Depression years. The common thread, of course, is Miss Kanagawa, who instills courage and love in the hearts of the children who cross her path. In so doing, she becomes a little more “real” herself, going from a cold and aloof ambassador to an object of love and devotion who can call even an addled old woman out of herself and back into a life she loved.
This book gives its readers a front row seat to the Great Depression and Dust Bowl era as seen through the eyes of children. Larson writes in such a way to capture the spirit of the times through both her characters’ speech, cultural references, and description. I love this description of Route 66:
Lucy thought it would be the best present ever to roll across the California state line on Christmas Eve. Out of Kingman, Arizona, Route 66 had changed its temperament. Most of the way, the Mother Road had been easy-going and easy to maneuver, if a bit bumpy and lumpy now and again. Past Kingman, she got a sharpness to her. She’d turned all unfriendly, as if to say, “You want California? It’ll cost you.” The road went up and up and up, with steep grades that set Betsy to chugging. And the curves were as tight as Aunt Miriam’s pin curls–without a guardrail in sight. (152)
I sometimes had a slightly difficult time keeping the names of the characters and their current situations straight, but this might very well have been because I was mostly reading it during a week-long, sleep-deprived stint of solo parenting while Steady Eddie was out of town for a work conference. Overall, though, this book provides an interesting and touching peek into life in the United States during the 1920s and 1930s, with an unusual thread to tie the stories together.
I couldn’t help but be reminded of several other stories I’ve read with dolls as characters while reading this story. In terms of the structure of the novel, this story reminds me most of Hitty: Her First Hundred Years by Rachel Field (linked to my review), although thematically it reminds me most of The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo (also linked to my review). The biggest difference is that in The Friendship Doll, Miss Kanagawa fades into the background of the stories until just the right time, when the children meet her; the stories are told from the point of view of each child, instead of from the doll’s point of view. We do get snippets of Miss Kanagawa’s thoughts in short bridge chapters between children, but otherwise, she is silent. In some ways this makes the story of the Japanese dolls seem extraneous to the real stories being told about the children and their struggles, but in the last chapter provides a satisfying conclusion to Miss Kanagawa’s journeys and transformation. Incidentally, a couple of my favorite bloggers have lately written posts about books with dolls as main characters:
- Thick and Thin Things–“Picture Books for Doll Lovers”
- Here in the Bonny Glen–“Best-Loved Doll Books”
One last thing of note: Kirby Larson always manages to include little tidbits of information in her books that I find intriguing. One thing that piqued my curiosity in this book was the appearance of a packhorse librarian during the WPA years. Larson mentions a book, Down Cut Shin Creek: The Pack Horse Librarians of Kentucky by Kathi Appelt (yes, that one!) and Jeanne Cannella Schmitzer. I’d like to read it!
For the lover of historical fiction (child or adult!), I think The Friendship Doll is a treat. Thanks to Kirby Larson, etc., for sending this book along to me! Although I received the book in exchange for my review, you can count on the fact that these are my honest thoughts about the book. 😉 (Delacorte Press, 2011)