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From The Asian Reporter, V16, #37 (September 12, 2006), page 20.
Grand and terrible
The Earth Dragon Awakes: The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906
By Laurence Yep
Hardcover, 117 pages, $14.99
By Josephine Bridges
"It is early evening in San Francisco. Streetlights come on. People hurry home. No one knows about the danger below." It’s an ominous, riveting beginning to a book readers are going to have a hard time putting down. This is not a lengthy book, so reading it in one sitting is realistic, if a bit dizzying. There’s a lot of information here, in addition to Laurence Yep’s suspenseful storytelling.
Protagonists Henry and Chin are friends. Henry’s eccentric parents employ the quietly competent Ah Sing, Chin’s father, as household help. While the Earth Dragon begins to stretch and yawn in ways that only Henry’s dog can detect, Ah Sing, "like the captain of a ship in a storm," gets Mr. and Mrs. Travis off to the opera.
The night before the earthquake, the boys are reading what Henry’s mother calls "penny dreadfuls," stories of cowboys and lawmen and six-guns, when they begin to commiserate about their fathers’ boring jobs, refreshingly making no distinction between working in a bank and washing dishes. But as the "grand and terrible" events of this book unfold, Henry and Chin discover heroism in some unexpected places.
Laurence Yep keeps his chapters short and his focus darting from one family to the other — and best of all to the forces of nature themselves — as he describes the quake and its aftermath over the course of less than two weeks. What he writes about plate tectonics, readers can understand. What he writes about bigotry, readers may not understand, especially in the midst of a natural disaster, but they must accept it as historical record.
The Earth Dragon Awakes is a quirky, subtle book, full of provocative description. Chinatown "is home and yet not home" to Chin, who was born in China. There, the "American buildings look like they are wearing Chinese disguises." Ah Quon, the butcher, "can’t blame the Earth Dragon if he gets upset. There are all these people stomping around on his ceiling." And the author doesn’t shy away from the sad fact that while most pitch in to help their neighbors, "trouble brings out the worst in some people."
Eventually, inspired by their fathers’ bravery, both Chin and Henry perform feats that show more guts than sense. "That was very stupid," Chin’s father tells the boy when he stands up to a mob of people trampling everything under their feet. "But also very brave. Thank you." Says Henry’s mother when her son retrieves his roller skates from their damaged house so that the family can use the wheels for a makeshift cart: "You are a very, very bad boy … But I’m very proud of you."
As Laurence Yep brings The Earth Dragon Awakes to a close, he finds a way to link events that took place a hundred years ago with events that are still almost current. Following the earthquake, more than 245,000 people fled San Francisco. "Never have so many people left an American city in peacetime — until Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans."