Book discussed: The Friendship Doll – Kirby Larson, Delacorte Press, 2011 (Yearling Paperback Reprint edition, 2012)
Japan dedicates a holiday each year to the role of dolls in the lives of Japanese girls, not as play objects, but as centers of elaborate ritual. Hinamatsuri, observed on March 3, combines religious focus on dolls symbolizing the Emperor and Empress and other important figures, and prayer and wishes for the futures of girls (an official summary from the Japanese embassy is here; more detail can be found on the website of the the Kyoto National Museum).
There are currently at least two authors who have written middle grade fiction about an historical event related to this practice. Kirby Larson’s The Friendship Doll was followed by a three book series by Shirley Parenteau, beginning with Ship of Dolls in 2014 (more on those in a later post). Both authors use the Friendship Dolls program of the 1920s, developed by Christian missionary Sydney Gulick and Japanese business leader Eiichi Shibusawa, as a way of promoting cultural understanding between the two nations through the exchange of traditional dolls. Larson weaves the stories of four different American girls suffering from different challenges, both economic and emotional, and one very haughty and yet vulnerable Japanese doll. The background of their stories is rich in historical detail; Larson’s attempt to present the hardships and inequality of the Great Depression is reason alone to share this book.
The Friendship Doll is a work of historical fiction, but it employs fantasy as well. Miss Kanagawa, the doll who wanders America through a series of circumstances beyond her control, has a mysterious power of influencing the choices of people who encounter her. There is a strongly didactic, even harsh, element to the way this happens. Children, and sometimes adults, facing clear moral dilemmas look into Miss Kanagawa’s dark eyes and experience epiphanies.
You may find the stark alternatives presented lacking in subtlety, or you may feel that the clear description of the process involved in making ethical decisions is perfect for middle grade readers. Miss Kanagawa is definitely more demanding and less prone to empathy than Rumer Godden’s Miss Happiness and Miss Flower or her Little Plum.
One of the stories involves the death of a main character. Again, given the target audience of the book, it was somewhat surprising, especially since, unlike the character of Beth in Little Women, there was less emotional preparation before it occurred. There was also a Dickensian sentiment in the way Larson writes about this tragedy and its impact on other characters. In fact, the author’s choice may reflect her experience of reading those earlier authors.
Almost any book that integrates careful research into a historical novel for children is worth reading. Here, as in her earlier Newbery Honor winner, Hattie Big Sky, Larson shows how seriously she takes the task of presenting the past to her readers. The Friendship Doll leads readers through events in the past, and gives them access to the interior experiences of children like themselves as they learn to negotiate the difficulties in their lives.