Dragonwings Summary

Laurence Yep


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Dragonwings Summary

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Dragonwings is a children’s historical novel by Chinese-American author Laurence Yep, first published in 1975. It is the first installment in the Golden Mountain Chronicles, a ten-novel series continued between 1984 and 2011, which follows the Young family in their journey over several generations, from 1835 to 2011, beginning in China. Dragonwings is set in 1903 and follows the story of a boy named Moon Shadow Lee who grows up in China without his father, who has gone to America to earn money. Moon Shadow accompanies a relative to America when he is nine and is reunited with his father, receiving a gift from him: a handmade kite. The story is partially based on real events that took place in 1909. The book explores themes of friendship, family, dreams, and the true meaning of home, as well as portraying the Chinese immigrant experience in the early twentieth century. It has been widely praised for its detailed, well-researched depiction of the time period, and is frequently taught in schools as an introduction to this period of American history. Dragonwings was a runner-up for the Newbery Medal upon its release, as well as winning an International Reading Association Children’s Book Award. In 1995, it won the Phoenix Award from the Children’s Literature Association, which recognized it as the best book published twenty years prior that hadn’t won any major awards that year. It was adapted into a play in 1991 by the author, and performed at theaters around California.

As Dragonwings begins, seven-year-old Moon Shadow Lee lives on his family farm in China. The year is 1903, and he has never met his father, who has gone to work in America. Moon Shadow enjoys stories his mother tells about his father, a master kite-maker. His father, Windrider, eventually sends word for Moon Shadow to come to America and live with him. When Moon Shadow arrives, he meets the rest of his family abroad, including their leader, Uncle Bright Star, chef White Deer, poet Left, and the boastful Hand Clap. Called the Company, they run a laundromat in the Tang Chinese village in San Francisco. However, on Moon Shadow’s first night, the laundromat is attacked by what Moon Shadow calls “demons”– white American bigots who throw a brick through the window. Windrider comforts Moon Shadow by telling him a dream he has, of saving a dragon’s life and being told he’ll come back as a dragon if he passes the tests he faces in life. Windrider shows his son the gadgets he builds and tells his son he wants to build an airplane. Uncle Bright Star thinks Windrider is crazy, but Moon Shadow is amazed. Moon Shadow helps his father at work and goes to school. He works on the car of a white man named Mr. Alger, and wins his respect.

However, trouble arrives in the form of Black Dog, Uncle Bright Star’s criminal son. Windrider and Moon Shadow rescue him from an opium den and protect him from the Justices, the cruel local watchmen. But Black Dog robs and beats Moon Shadow to steal the money he’s collected from customers. Windrider is enraged, and goes to fight Black Dog at the headquarters of the Sleepers, Black Dog’s gang. Moon Shadow follows. Windrider wins the fight, but one of the Sleepers is killed in self-defense. To avoid revenge by the dead man’s family, Windrider takes his son to go work for Mr. Alger. The Company wishes them well and gives them gifts as they go. They move into a stable behind a boarding house owned by Miss Whitlaw. Moon Shadow sees her as kind, even though she’s a demon. She has gadgets that he enjoys, and her niece Robin is a gifted piano player. Moon Shadow visits her daily and brings them Jasmine tea in his free time. He’s bullied by the local boys, but he and Robin become close and they share stories. Miss Whitlaw teaches Moon Shadow how to write better so that he can write a letter to the Wright Brothers, and he begins designing a model glider. Father and son, along with Miss Whitlaw and Robin, go to the sand dunes to fly his model. Robin helps Moon Shadow deal with neighborhood bully Jack by telling him to punch Jack in the nose. This earns Jack’s respect, and after the punch he leaves Moon Shadow alone. Father and son reunite with the Company at a festival in Chinatown. This is right before everything changes.

The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 devastates everything, and many people are lost, including Jack. The Whitlaws and Lees go to Golden Gate Park to search for survivors, and are reunited with the Company. They go to find Uncle back at the village and convince him to come somewhere safer. The Whitlaws and the Company meet and have dinner together. However, their newfound unity only lasts until soldiers come in and start rounding up the Chinese people, expelling them from the park and refusing to let them return home. Uncle is able to negotiate a deal with them, and the Tang community unites to rebuild their village. Windrider decides to pursue his dream of flying, and Moon Shadow goes with him. The two move into a barn in Oakland, and Moon Shadow works as a grocery delivery boy. He receives a letter from his mother and grandmother. His grandmother asks him to support his father, while his grandmother thinks Windrider is nuts.

Windrider eventually builds an airplane that they paint like a dragon. They name it Dragonwings, but before they can fly it, Black Dog hunts them down and robs them of their savings, threatening to kill Moon Shadow. However, the Company arrives and gives Windrider a loan. They help Windrider launch the plane, and he flies for a bit, but then the plane snaps and Windrider breaks his leg and ribs. Alive but injured, he realizes he’s achieved his dream and never wants to risk leaving his family again. He rejoins the laundromat as a partner, and earns enough money to bring Moon Shadow’s mother to America. Moon Shadow, now closer with Robin than ever, is amazed at his good luck. The book ends with an afterword on the story of Fung Joe Guey, whose life inspired the book.

Laurence Michael Yep is a prolific and critically acclaimed Chinese-American author, best known for his children’s books. His series include the Golden Mountain Chronicles, Dragon, Chinatown Mysteries, The Tiger’s Apprentice, Ribbons, the City Trilogy, and dozens of stand-alone picture books and young reader books, as well as five plays. He is also the author of two series in the American Girl franchise. In 2005, he was honored with the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal for his career in children’s literature.