July 08, 2011

Four girls and one special doll

By Kirby Larson
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Grab a tall glass of lemonade and curl up for a wonderful journey through history with Kirby Larson's The Friendship Doll.

Meet Miss Kanagawa. Made by a master dollmaker, she has human hair, a silk kimono, a hand-painted face and skin made from crushed oyster shells. She was one of 58 "Friendship Dolls" that arrived in the United States in 1927, a gift from millions of Japanese schoolchildren who collected change to finance the dolls' creation and journey. That same year, America sent 12,739 dolls to Japan.

Today, these dolls have ended up in a variety of different places, such as the Smithsonian Institution. However, 12 of the 58 Friendship Dolls are unaccounted for, or missing, including Miss Kanagawa.

Larson saw a photograph of one of these magnificent 33-inch dolls while researching her Newbery Honor-winning novel, Hattie Big-Sky. She eventually felt these dolls "speak" to her, and in her novel, the author deftly allows Miss Kanagawa to occasionally "speak" (very quietly, practically imperceptibly) to certain people the doll encounters through the years.

Larson has created a series of stories, featuring four different girls, to trace Miss Kanagawa’s fictional path from 1927 through the Great Depression to the present day. Readers first meet young Bunny Harden, who belongs to a wealthy New York City family that helps welcome the dolls to America. Bunny learns an important lesson about compassion when she seethes over the fact that her classmate, Belle Roosevelt, has been chosen to give a welcoming speech for the dolls at City Hall, and not her.

The next chapter introduces Lois Brown, who is invited by her great-aunt to accompany her to the Chicago World’ Fair in 1933. Enamored with aviators like Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart and Bessie Coleman, Lois can't wait to ride the amazing Sky Ride. Instead, she decides to use her money to buy a special souvenir for a friend whose family is experiencing hard times. All the while, readers take an exciting tour of the fair, where Miss Kanagawa is spotted on display.

Next is an extremely touching tale set in 1937 Kentucky, when young Willie Mae Marcum is sent to live in the house of a crotchety old woman for a month, reading aloud to keep her company. (This woman bought Miss Kanagawa at an auction, and Willie Mae spots the doll in her room.)

Finally, we meet Lucy Turner, whose mother has died, and who travels from Oklahoma to California with her father as he looks for work from 1939 to 1941. This is a fascinating look at "Okie" migration, as Lucy and her Dad end up living in a tent in a Farm Security Association (FSA) Camp in Oregon. It's also an intriguing glimpse of what happened after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when many of these Friendship Dolls suddenly became objects of derision.

In the present-day chapter, we see Lucy as an elderly, ailing grandmother who momentarily comes to life when her grandson unearths Miss Kanagawa from her attic.

Larson's intriguing tales are lively and readable, forming a cohesive saga, all the while imparting riveting historical details.

For more information about these dolls and their many stories, visit the Friendship Doll page.

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The Friendship Doll

The Friendship Doll

By Kirby Larson
ISBN 9780385737456

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