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Dragon Springs Road by Janie Chang
Review by Mel Jacob
William Morrow Trade Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780062388957
Date: 10 January 2017

Links: Author's Website / Show Official Info /

Dragon Springs Road by Janie Chang offers a fascinating dip into Chinese history at the beginning of the 20th Century and the difficult position of women. Ostensibly the story of a young Eurasian orphan, it also reveals significant political upheaval as China moves from European dominance to new forms of governance and struggles to balance old beliefs with new ones. Murder changes the lives of the orphan, her mother, and a wealthy newspaper editor.

As a young child, Jialing is left by her mother with enough food for a week or more and the assurance her mother would return for her. The owner of the three house complex where they live has sold it to pay off his debts. Weeks later, her mother has not returned. Jailing has managed to salvage moldy plums to eat and has plenty of water from the well, but needs food badly.

She has the company of Fox, a spirit or lesser deity worshiped by her mother. Fox keeps the orphan's sprits up and shares her dreams. When the Yang family buys the complex and settles into the middle house of the three, the eldest daughter of the house discovers Jialing and takes her to her grandmother for a decision on what to do with the child. Some urge sending her to the orphanage.

Grandmother Yang discovers ten gold sovereigns sewn into Jialing’s tunic by her mother which she keeps and, concerned with her afterlife, decides to make the orphan her personal bond servant. Thus, Jailing finds a new home and a friend in Anjuin, the eldest daughter of the house.

A police officer buys the Eastern House for his wife and daughter and the young daughter soon makes friends with Jialing. Unfortunately, the policeman's wife is an alcoholic who hates China and blames her daughter for the move from England. Addicted to alcohol, the woman beats her child. When the daughter, Anna, arrives covered in blood, Jialing worries about her and urges her not to go back, but Anna refuses. Then, the Door to the Immortals of Chinese legend opens and the child flees through it. When Jialing tells the policeman this he doesn't believe her. Later a body is found near a shine.

Eventually, Miss Morris, the head of a mission school, rents the now vacant policeman's home for her and her teachers. Ever curious, Jialing attempts to spy on the house, but is caught by the maid who takes advantages of Jialing to avoid chores she dislikes. When Miss Morris discovers this, she stops the practice at once. She takes an interest in the orphan and offers to pay Grandmother Yang if she will allow Jialing to attend school and she will feed and board the child as well. Seeing a good bargain, Grandmother agrees.

Other Eurasian children attend the mission school, but are looked down upon by the other students and some teacher. The Chinese have no used for mixed breed children. Meanwhile, Fox continues to educate Jialing about the world and nature.

After graduation, Jailing is unsuccessful in gaining employment because she is Eurasian. With no options left, she becomes the mistress of a wealthy newspaper editor and lives a life of luxury. Along the way, she encounters a stranger that she realizes she has seen before despite his denial of having never been in Shanghai.

Jialing's patron is concerned the man may be a political assassin. When the man encounters Jialing visiting Fox, he attacks and attempts to rape her, but is stopped by her patron. The man tries to kill the patron, but Jialing's mother batters him to death. When the patron recovers, he fears the man might have colleagues so he disposes of the body and swears Jailing to secrecy. Eventually the police find the body and investigate, but find nothing to link to Jialing or her patron. Meanwhile, the patron's wife tries to commit suicide so he decides to put Jailing aside.

When a distant relative of the dead man arrives, Jialing's patron demands she keep him occupied. She falls in love, but fears retribution from the patron's uncle who is linked to gangsters.

The indomitable spirits of Jialing, her dying mother, and Fox survive as each seeks her destiny. The journey is long and filled with pain, but they triumph for a bittersweet ending that may surprise readers. The writing is lyrical in places, and the imagery delightful. This is the second novel by Janie Chang and takes place earlier in time than her debut novel, Three Souls.

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