Friday, July 11, 2008

The Earth Dragon Awakes

Yep, Laurence. 2006. The Earth Dragon Awakes: The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. New York: Harper Collins. ISBN 13: 9780060275242.

It is Tuesday, April 17, 1906, and two boys separate for the evening. Chin heads for home in his Chinatown tenement building, riding the cable car with his father, Chinese "houseboy", Ah Sing. Henry settles in the for the night at his Nob Hill home, now that his parents are home from the opera. Neither is aware of the earthquake that will strike within hours. The Earth Dragon Awakes chronicles the story of the great San Francisco earthquake and fire through the parallel stories of Henry and Chin.

The Earth Dragon Awakes: The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 is a historical fiction novel for young readers, by Newbery Honor winner, Laurence Yep. The short chapters are titled with a time, date, and location stamp, “5:12 A.M., Wednesday, April 18, 1906, Chin and Ah Sing’s tenement, Chinatown.” The story line is clear and linear, beginning on the eve of the great quake, and ending ten days later.
Yep’s genius is in telling parallel stories of the two friends, Henry Travis, son of a White banker, and Chin, the son of Henry’s houseboy, Ah Sing. When the story begins, Ah Sing and Chin are watching Henry while his parents attend the opera. As the Chinese pair leaves Nob Hill, their tale begins to diverge from the Travis’. Chin and his father travel by streetcar to Chinatown, where, although it is now midnight, the streets are still bustling as Chinese workers attend to their errands after a long day’s work. Chin and Ah Sing purchase Chinese newspapers and buy apples. Ah Quon, their neighbor, is leaving the temple. Authentic Chinese names are used throughout. Other cultural markers are less obvious, but no less authentic.

In the tenement, Chin can hear “the clacking of mahjong tiles,” and “twisted cable-car tracks look like the strokes of a mysterious, dreadful word.” (A footnote explains that a Chinese character is representative of a word)

The book’s title, The Earth Dragon Awakes, is suggestive of this culture’s historical usage of folkloric creatures. When Ah Quon warns that the Earth Dragon is upset, Ah Sing notes, “The Earth Dragon has shaken the city before,” “We’re still holding on to his back.” Chin silently asks the “Earth Dragon to keep his temper.” A dragon symbol denotes each new chapter. In another instance of personification, “fear twists inside Chin like a snake.”

A perfect example of the dichotomy of the American and Chinese American cultures lies within the story itself. Western literature is typically conflict and resolution. The Travis family’s story in the face of the disaster is one of resoluteness. At first they attempt to stay in their destroyed neighborhood, willing to suffer deprivation and hardship. Only when their situation becomes untenable, do they begin moving – vowing to rebuild and return. The focus of their resolution is to conquer their hardship. Ah Sing and Chin’s goal, however, is to adapt and to continue. As soon as the disaster befalls, they immediately decide to press on to safety, placing survival and continuance foremost. They are decidedly adaptable in their quest – even taking on a short job as wagon loaders to earn money for their ship passage to safety. Conquering the Earth Dragon would not be a culturally authentic outlook for Ah Sing and Chin.

A modernizing aside to the text is the addition of a small footnote in the last chapter. After reading that twenty thousand people have fled San Francisco by boat, and 225,000 more by train, the reader is directed to a footnote, “Never before have so many people left an American city in peacetime – until Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans.” The addition of this small footnote serves as a reminder of the huge proportions of both tragedies, but also of the possibility for recovery.

As one reviewer noted, the book’s theme of “ordinary heroes” is a bit didactic, “These are ordinary people Henry sees every day. “They’re acting just like heroes,’ he says to his mother.” This is a minor flaw, however, and children will likely ignore the heavy handedness. Scientific explanations of the earthquake and resulting firestorm may be very interesting to some readers, but are so neatly woven into the story, that they are not distracting to those less scientifically inclined.

Yep’s Afterword is especially interesting, placing the Great Earthquake and Fire in terms that modern youngsters can understand, explaining that in 1906, “fourteen dollars could comfortably feed for people for a week,” then outlining the cost of the disaster in 1906 and current year dollars. He also notes which of the story’s anecdotes are factual, including people stopping “a runaway horse by flapping umbrellas at it.” Yep personalizes the book by relating that his own grandfather was a Chinese houseboy who was returning to San Francisco from China on the day following the earthquake. His grandfather was detained at the immigration center for seven days. A suggested reading list and six photographs of the quake’s aftermath (sure to interest young readers) close out the book.

With its focus on the two boys, the earthquake and the fire, The Earth Dragon Awakes is an excellent choice for middle-school aged boys (or girls) who may otherwise be disinterested in multicultural literature. The vocabulary is simple; and the uncomplicated story of one of the nation’s most famous disasters will be sure to hold the interest of the less sophisticated reader.

Bring in a mahjong set to show. Use it as an opportunity to introduce this piece of Chinese culture and its motif of Chinese characters.

The Earth Dragon Awakes is particularly well suited for cross curricular use - in language arts as a reluctant reader novel, in Social Studies to complement immigration history, and in Science to aid in the study of plate tectonics.

Readers interested in Chinatown may enjoy Yep's series, Chinatown Mysteries.

1 comment:

  1. Hi,

    I grew up as a reluctant reader. Now I write action-adventures & mysteries, especially for boys 8 and up, that kids hate to put down. My web site is at and my Books for Boys blog is at
    Ranked by Accelerated Reader

    Max Elliot Anderson

    Read about my message to kids in a bottle: