October 27, 2011


In Search of Sasquatch. By Kelly Milner Halls. Houghton Mifflin. $16.99.

The Dragon’s Child: A Story of Angel Island. By Laurence Yep with Dr. Kathleen S. Yep. Harper. $5.99.

Dragons of Silk. By Laurence Yep. Harper. $16.99.

     Some creatures have real-world resonance even when they are entirely fictional – or their provenance is uncertain. One such is Sasquatch, also known as Bigfoot, the Yeti or the Abominable Snowman, a huge ape-like something that has been repeatedly sighted (or not) and repeatedly documented (or not). Kelly Milner Halls’ In Search of Sasquatch must therefore be a book seeking the truth or untruth of this creature’s existence before it can become a book chronicling the search for the elusive being. But of course Halls does not know whether there is any such thing – no one does. So the book’s two quests go on simultaneously: for the truth or falsity of reports of Sasquatch’s existence and for Sasquatch itself. Certainly there are plenty of people (called Squatchers) who are actively seeking evidence of Sasquatch; but there are others searching just as enthusiastically for evidence of alien presence on Earth, or for proof that vampires are real. So the existence of Squatchers proves nothing. Nor does any of the “evidence” that Halls offers, none of which is definitive (if it were, there would be no dispute as to the existence of Sasquatch). Studies of footprints whose origin cannot be explained, sounds that may or may not indicate a language, films that may or may not actually show Sasquatch – these and more are fodder for Halls’ book. Along the way, the author shows photos of ancient artifacts that may show a Sasquatch-like creature (or may not); of a hand that Tibetan monks claim belonged to a Yeti; and of a young Jimmy Stewart, who smuggled a supposed Yeti finger out of Europe while he was in U.S. military service. Tepee-like structures and broken branches called upbreaks may show Sasquatch trails – or may not. Halls eventually turns to a discussion of Bigfoot hoaxes, explaining what some of them have been and why they have cast a pall of doubt on the whole Sasquatch search. But in fact, it is not only the hoaxes that have done this – there simply is no scientific evidence that this being exists. Halls leans in the direction of saying that it does, using the coelacanth and giant squid as examples of creatures once believed extinct or mythic that turned out to be real and living in the present day. But the cases of those animals prove no more about Sasquatch than does, say, the question of whether there is really a Loch Ness monster. In Search of Sasquatch is finally not a very satisfying book, because it comes to no conclusions – and really cannot come to any. It is best for young readers who are willing to accept ambiguity and uncertainty as inherent elements of scientific inquiry; but that sort of acceptance can be difficult even for many adults.

     Few people believe nowadays that dragons are real, but the dragon remains a very important mythic symbol, especially in China and among Chinese who have emigrated. Many of Laurence Yep’s books for young people – he has written more than 60 – include dragons in the title or give them an important symbolic role in the narrative. The Dragon’s Child, first published in 2008 and now available in paperback, is one of them. Intended for ages 8-12, it is the story of Yep’s father’s trip to America in 1922, at the age of 10. The story is told in Gim Lew Yep’s voice, with each chapter opening with a question that the chapter then discusses, such as, “Were you nervous about America?” Indeed, Gim was very nervous indeed, since at this time, upon arrival at a place called Angel Island, he would have to go through an intensive examination about his family and his life in China. Gim is left-handed, which is considered a handicap, and he stutters when he is nervous, spending much of the book trying to convince himself not to do so during the crucial interview. The book also deals continually with Gim’s deep feelings of loss over leaving his home, family and village. The Dragon’s Child raises some significant issues, such as why people treat other people badly and how Gim himself is supposed to fit in when moving from one kind of life to an entirely different one. However, this is not an especially gripping book for the age group it targets: it is written at the right level, but it is talky and its eventual outcome is a foregone conclusion, so it may not hold the interest of some young readers. Structured as a blend of fact and fiction and co-written by Yep with his niece, The Dragon’s Child comes across as having considerable meaning for the author and his relatives, but not likely as much for readers whose life experience differs significantly from that of Yep’s family.

     Dragons of Silk, the final volume in Yep’s Golden Mountain Chronicles: 1835-2011, is a more effective book and aimed at slightly older readers, ages 10 and up. Its foundation is a Chinese myth about the Weaving Maid, a beautiful woman who created silk robes for Heaven but gave up her work when she met and fell in love with the Cowboy and sought to be with him. Heaven would not allow this, and created the Milky Way to separate the lovers – so the story goes. But this myth is not Yep’s story, only its background. In Yep’s novel, interwoven tales of love and passion are connected through the Weaving Maid tale: each of the girls, living in a different time and different place, learns lessons about tradition and sacrifice, all connected to the myth. The first part of the book, set in 1835, is told in chapters labeled “Lily” or “Swallow”; the second, from 1881, focuses on Little Swallow; the third, from 1932, is a single chapter, set in San Francisco’s Chinatown and labeled “Lillian”; the fourth part, dated 1962, includes both “Rosie” and “Lillian” chapters; and the final part, bearing the date 2011, is a very short “Rosie” chapter set in New York City. Yep’s novel weaves the stories together much as the characters weave silk or otherwise work with it, or are involved in incidents that tie back to the Weaving Maid’s silk robes. Indeed, silk is the thread that interconnects all these stories and Yep’s Golden Mountain Chronicles as a whole, with the word “silk” appearing, like a benediction, in six of the book’s last seven sentences. Dragons of Silk is a well-wrought end to Yep’s long-spanning series, which began with The Serpent’s Children in 1984. It is not a book with which to encounter the series for the first time – there is in it too much resonance of earlier volumes. But for those who have followed the Golden Mountain Chronicles for years, it is a fitting conclusion to a multiplicity of deeply felt tales.

1 comment:

  1. I appreciate your very thoughtful review of my book IN SEARCH OF SASQUATCH. I hope you don't mind my sharing a comment, too.

    As a kid, I loved watching any documentary about the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot on television with my father. He was a math and physics guy, a computer science guy, a hard facts guy, but he allowed me a sense of wonder and curiosity. He let me gather facts and draw my own conclusions.

    I'm older now, with grown children of my own. So my perspective has changed a bit, but I am still intrigued by mysteries and the people who seek to solve them. There were several books for young readers that suggested Sasquatch was a hoax -- that side had been well represented. So I set out to tell a different story -- the story of investigators who believe it MIGHT be real. I felt it was an interesting, fresh point of view and worthy of exploration.

    You deftly pointed out that I did not offer conclusive proof that Sasquatch does or does not exist. As a researcher, I did not find conclusive proof, neither have the experts. What I did find were serious people willing to consider the possibility, and I told their story. I hope I did that effectively.

    If you didn't like the book, I'm okay with that. That's the joy of our freedom to read. We like what we like. We don't like what we don't like, and it's good either way.

    But just so we're clear, in writng IN SEARCH OF SASQUATCH, it was not my goal to prove or disprove anything, not my goal to "lean" either way. I simply wanted to write about the quest and the people who undertake it hopefully. I hope I told their story well. I hope young readers will draw conclusions of their own, either way. I celebrate whatever they decide, as my father did for me.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful review. I am grateful, truly.

    Best wishes,

    Kelly Milner Halls
    Children's Nonfiction Author