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Dragon Bones book review, by Dave Johnson

Interview with Lisa See, by Polo


"Author Lisa See possesses a new kind of affirmative ethnicity.

Its assertion drives her novel-writing; it informs her historical work."

-- Polo


From The Asian Reporter, V13, #29 (July 15-21, 2003), page 11.

A mystery, love story, and history lesson from modern China

Dragon Bones

By Lisa See

Random House, 2003

Hardbound, 349 pages, $24.95

By Dave Johnson

In ancient times, oracle bones employed to predict the future were thought of as dragon bones. Farmers along the Yellow River unearthed these bones and sold them to doctors who ground them up for powerful medicine.

In more recent times, characters carved on these magic bones have been examined by scholars to support the claim that China has the oldest continuous language in the world.

Blending homicide, greed, and corruption into this mix of myth and archeology, Lisa See has penned a thrilling detective novel crowded with the usual shifty suspects. As a backdrop to this timely whodunit, she focuses a critical eye on the current state of affairs in the mammoth nation of her ancestry.

After a grisly prologue that follows a battered American corpse down the Yangtze, the narrative moves to Tiananmen Square, where Inspector Liu Hulan is monitoring the first public meeting of the All-Patriotic Society in Beijing. Hulan despises this religiously political cult and is eager to help end its illegal activities. But she doesnít plan on shooting one of the participants.

After Hulanís tragic intervention makes the evening news, she is re-assigned to the upper Yellow River to investigate the death of the foreigner at Site 518, where a search for antiquities is in progress before the massive Three Gorges Dam, under construction, inundates these treasures. As well as sending his top investigator to solve this politically charged murder, Hulanís supervisor and mentor, Vice Minister Zai, arranges for Hulanís husband, David Stark, to accompany her to the site as a representative of the National Relics Bureau. A noted lawyer and troubleshooter, Stark is given the task of discovering the whereabouts of highly valuable and historically meaningful artifacts.

Zai also has a not-so-hidden agenda as a compassionate observer of a troubled marriage. The death of their daughter, Chaowen, from meningitis, has sent Hulan and David into separate emotional camps. Zaiís hope is that parallel investigations will bring the two out of their shells of grief and into each otherís arms.

The journey upriver begins pleasantly, but, as soon as they arrive at Site 518, the plot turns thick as river silt. They encounter a nervous local cop, the troubled director of the dig, and a band of archeologists ranging from a shady procurer of artifacts for an auction firm in Hong Kong to an arrogant collector of relics with little regard for their proper provenance.

Toss in a group of international scientists, representatives from provincial museums dubbed the "Vultures," and the angry leader of the local All-Patriotic Society. Add a few million villagers and farmers suffering floods, famine, and the chaos of relocation, and you have a cast of characters centerstage in Chinaís efforts to harness the might of the Yellow River and thereby claim its heritage and emergence as a world power.

But long before the river rises to its final depth in 2009, there are other monumental forces at play. Has an iconic relic described as the "Holy Grail" of China been discovered by one of the archeologists?

Does this symbolic item have the power to radically reshape the countryís future? Is there a conspiracy to claim and unleash its mythical potency, or a crowd of solo players each with a private scheme?

As the action accelerates, pieces of the puzzle fall into place. David travels to Hong Kong to observe an auction of artifacts and Hulan remains at site 518 to follow her intrepid intuition into treacherous shadows that hide a killer.

The author artfully juggles her mystery, a tale of two wounded hearts, and vivid impressions of a cultureís traditions and customs. Sprinkled through the narrative are facts and figures about the controversial project to build the biggest dam in the world. Itís a bravura performance by a writer who is mid-stride in a genre series that gives readers a thoughtful conduit of insight into the exotic and familiar.

See has also written two earlier novels featuring detective Liu Hulan. In Flower Net, Hulan investigates the cruel practice of raising bears in China for medicinal use of their gall bladders. The Interior sends Hulan undercover into a factory where peasant women are brutally exploited.

Her first book, On Gold Mountain, is a fascinating memoir in which she uses her familyís early days in California to recount the rich history of Chinese immigration to America. Currently, the author lives in Los Angeles.

* * *

From The Asian Reporter, V13, #29 (July 15-21, 2003), page 11.

Evolving Asian America

Portrait of author Lisa See

By Polo

"If you look at an election map, at the states voting blue and the states voting red ó thereís a reason people vote like that along Americaís coasts," novelist and noted historicist of West Coast Chinese America Lisa See said during her late June presentation on her new novel, Dragon Bones, before Portlandís Northwest China Council. "Immigrants change how people in coastal states view the world. These voters will generally have a broader perspective of what goes on outside the country."

"North Korea, for example, is seen very differently in California, than, say, in Nebraska." For her astute sensibility of how things Chinese affect Americaís mainstream, Ms. See has earned some of the publishing industryís highest honors, including a New York Times Notable Book recognition for her 1995 national bestseller On Gold Mountain: The One Hundred Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family, and then another New York Times notable plus a Los Angeles Times Best Book award for her 1997 national best seller Flower Net.

For the authorís acute sense of Chinese immigrant history in Southern California, the mayor of Los Angeles appointed Lisa See as a Commissioner of El Pueblo de Los Angeles, an historic district in L.A.ís immigrant core. "This city is really a microcosm of our world," Ms. See said, referring to nearly two centuries of immigrant and ethnic minority layering actually built into and on top of old Los Angeles. "And it continues as an evolving place."

"In this country, we have very short memories. But if you look carefully at the cultural history of Los Angeles, what is important to note is how that past affects us today."

Ms. Seeís commitments and contributions to Chinese immigrant history include her selection as guest curator for the Autry Western Heritage Museumís Chinese American exhibit, which then traveled to the Smithsonian Institution in 2001; her curating the retrospective of artist Tyrus Wong for the 2003 grand opening of Los Angelesís Chinese American Museum; and her designing a walking tour and guidebook of Los Angelesís Chinatown to celebrate the opening of the Chinatown metro station.

Just as plain, and perhaps even more profound than Lisa Seeís professional participation in Los Angelesís cultural life, is the authorís personal profile. Lisa See is the face of an American inevitability. Her hair is light, her eyes are almond. She has the look and the manner of a steadily growing number of others in California, in Washington, in Hawaiíi ó those coastal states she cites as changing Americaís perspectives and politics.

"When I go to schools today, I see all these world faces. But you canít tell, from just looking at kidsí faces, what part of their ancestry they identify with. And thatís the interesting thing, the exciting thing, about these times. People are choosing pieces of ancestry to follow."

Author Lisa See possesses a new kind of affirmative ethnicity. Its assertion drives her novel-writing; it informs her historical work. She has chosen each of her bones by timbre; she lives her selection with savvy determination. All that notwithstanding, at bottom Ms. See "will always be Fong Seeís great-granddaughter, Sumoyís niece, Gimís third cousin once removed."


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