Dragon Bones book review, by Dave Johnson
Interview with Lisa See, by Polo
"Author Lisa See possesses a new kind of
Its assertion drives her novel-writing; it informs her
From The Asian Reporter, V13, #29 (July 15-21,
2003), page 11.
A mystery, love story, and history lesson from modern
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
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
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
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
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
* * *
From The Asian Reporter, V13, #29 (July 15-21,
2003), page 11.
Evolving Asian America
Portrait of author Lisa See
"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
"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
"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
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."