Book reviewed: Ship of Dolls – Shirley Parenteau, Candlewick Press, 2014
It’s tough to be a young child caught in a web of moral decisions. You’re lucky if you have a silent but persuasive doll to help you. In Kirby Larson’s The Friendship Doll, that message was explicit. In Ship of Dolls, the first in Shirly Parenteau’s trilogy about the same Japanese-American doll exchange which was the setting for Larson’s novel, eleven-year old Lexie Lewis is confronted with the consequences of lying or even withholding the truth from her grandparent guardians. She is also involved in the 1920s doll exchange, an eager, even desperate, participant in a contest to accompany an American doll, Emily Grace, to San Francisco, to be part of the send-off of these silent ambassadors to Japan. Like most of the characters in Larson’s book, Lexie is a powerless child caught in a bad situation; her actions can either improve things or make them much worse.
The two authors’ moral and narrative style are somewhat similar, at least in the fact that their young heroines are treated really badly by adults. Lexie’s father has been killed in a car accident. As the book begins she is living in Portland Oregon with her paternal grandparents. Her mother is a flapper, making this book rather different from Larson’s. There is a focus on Lexie’s incompetent mom as a hedonistic if well-intentioned “new woman,” who dresses stylishly, sings in nightclubs, and seems to be inconsistent in her feelings about different men in her life. She remarries a musician after he husband’s untimely death, but, by the end of the book, a ship’s captain has offered her “free” passage to Japan in exchange for entertaining the passengers.
A wary Lexie, who has dreamed of being reunited with her mother, is suspicious:
“Lexie thought of the way Captain Richards had looked at Mama, a look Lexie had seen before.
That look meant dancing all night while Lexie waited alone in a cabin.”
Given the standards for women’s behavior of even the relatively progressive “roaring twenties,” it is ambiguous whether the author is judging Lexie’s mother or simply relating the events of her bohemian life. We certainly are not unsure about Lexie’s grandmother, a stern but loving woman who is committed to protecting Lexie, particularly from choosing the same impulsive life as her mother. The course of events in the novel trace Lexie’s conflict with her grandmother, her plan to be permanently reunited with her mother, and her gradual realization that her grandparents’ love is really more reliable and safe than her mother’s chaotic affection. Learning to tell the truth, and understanding the consequences of failing to do so, become rather horrifying steps in this path towards maturity.
Lexie’s school is sponsoring a contest. The student who writes the best letter representing their doll’s mission will win a trip to San Francisco, where Lexie’s mother is living. When Lexie enters the room where her teacher lives in a boardinghouse and takes the friendship doll, hoping to familiarize herself with the doll and write a more authentic letter, she gets caught. The sympathetic teacher, understanding Lexie’s motives, allows her to borrow the doll, and even to sew a new dress for her. Lexie does not immediately explain to her grandmother why she has the doll. Her grandmother initially believes the doll is a reward for an accomplishment in school. When she learns that Lexie has not told her the truth, she is infuriated. She is determined to punish Lexie and teacher her a lesson, and cannot be dissuaded by her ineffectual husband.
Here is the turning point, which presented some difficulty in rooting for grandma. In a scene reminiscent of the cruelest nineteenth century children’s book villainy (think Miss Minchin in A Little Princess), Lexie’s grandmother forces her to throw the dress she had been helping her to sew into the stove, watching it burn. She also forces her to burn the pattern, for good measure. Her actions are perfectly believable by standards of early twentieth century child rearing, but Lexie’s subsequent reconciliation with her grandmother just seems a little more the result of desperation than anything else. After all, children need adults to care for them and they can’t choose from candidates to do so.
In addition, Lexie’s entire environment is marked by adult venality and cowardice. The contest is rigged; the daughter of the wealthy school board president steals Lexie’s letter and original poem in order to win the contest. No one organizing the event has the courage to stand up for the truth.
Different middle grade readers will no doubt react different to this book. They may feel recognition, sadness, confusion, or a sense of resolution when Lexie leaves her mother in San Francisco and returns to her grandparents’ loving home. The grandmother’s rigidity and unrealistic standards for the child in her care framed the book for me in a way that couldn’t be resolved. Maybe that ambiguity was intentional. The book is worth reading and discussing.