On My Bookshelf: China Dolls by Lisa See

August 01, 2016

In China Dolls by Lisa See, three young Asian women meet while auditioning at a San Francisco nightclub and quickly become friends despite their differences. But the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the start of World War II will change everything. Read on for more of my review and ideas for classroom application.
The basic plot from Amazon: It’s 1938 in San Francisco: a world’s fair is preparing to open on Treasure Island, a war is brewing overseas, and the city is alive with possibilities. Grace, Helen, and Ruby, three young women from very different backgrounds, meet by chance at the exclusive and glamorous Forbidden City nightclub. Grace Lee, an American-born Chinese girl, has fled the Midwest with nothing but heartache, talent, and a pair of dancing shoes. Helen Fong lives with her extended family in Chinatown, where her traditional parents insist that she guard her reputation like a piece of jade. The stunning Ruby Tom challenges the boundaries of convention at every turn with her defiant attitude and no-holds-barred ambition.

The girls become fast friends, relying on one another through unexpected challenges and shifting fortunes. When their dark secrets are exposed and the invisible thread of fate binds them even tighter, they find the strength and resilience to reach for their dreams. But after the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, paranoia and suspicion threaten to destroy their lives, and a shocking act of betrayal changes everything.
In China Dolls by Lisa See, three young Asian women meet while auditioning at a San Francisco nightclub and quickly become friends despite their differences. But the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the start of World War II will change everything. Read on for more of my review and ideas for classroom application.

Why I liked it: Ruby, Grace, and Helen are all in San Francisco pre-World War II for different reasons. Ruby is hiding her Japanese identity and trying to make it on her own. Grace has run away from her abusive father and is also hoping to become a star. Helen is suffering under her father's protective, traditional Chinese ways and a haunting past.

Despite their differences, the three girls connect, become close friends, and active in the San Francisco nightlife, dancing at nightclubs and the Golden Gate International Exposition. As the war approaches, it becomes more and more difficult for Ruby to hide her true identity. She and Grace quarrel over a love interest, and Helen becomes entangled with a male dancer masking his homosexual lifestyle. While each of the girls had their own separate struggles, by the war's end they have a chance to reunite and dance together again. The novel ends with the girls in old age looking back on all they have accomplished.

And oh the drama! The three girls in China Dolls have a very close friendship, but that doesn't mean there isn't jealousy, secrets, and betrayals. A trio of friends has a special dynamic and the author realistically captures how one friend is always trying to one up another to be the "best" friend.

The time period is also one of my favorites and the book gives you an interesting look at life for women during WWII.

Classroom application: This novel could be a selection for literature circles focused on the theme of racism. The novel touches on the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, but even more heavily focuses on the discrimination Asians faced in their day to day life. During that time period there were laws against marrying Caucasians. In he classroom, our discussions around racism too often focus on African Americans. It is important for students to know that our groups faced similar struggles.

Like with Panic, you could also use it as a mentor text to have students practice writing from alternating perspectives and developing multiple, intersecting plot lines (part of the narrative writing standards for grades 11-12), except this has three alternating narrators, not just two. Developing each of the three characters equally would definitely be a challenge.

If you are interested in purchasing a copy of China Dolls for yourself, you can find it on Amazon here.

For more reading suggestions for students and teachers:



Note: The Literary Maven is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.

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