Friday, June 1, 2012

Dragon's Gate

Yep, L. (1993). Dragon’s Gate. New York: Harper Collins.

Age: 12 Years and Over

Genre: Multicultural (Asian/Pacific American Literature)


Dragon’s Gate is a story about a young man in China that has led a privileged life.  After hearing stories from his father and uncle about America he finds himself wanting to visit.  Once in America, he joins the crews made up of mostly Chinese men working on the transcontinental railroad and specifically chiseling through the Sierra Nevada Mountains to make a tunnel for which the “fire wagons” or locomotives to travel.  Along the way, he endures the harsh winter in the mountains and learns lifelong lessons that lead him to manhood. Dragon’s Gate is part of the Golden Mountain Chronicles series and a 1994 Newbery Honor Book.


The story is told in from a first person point-of-view where the reader is privy to the thoughts of the young man along his journey and it seems to be told in the past tense, as if the whole story is a reflection or flashback. Additionally, the author utilized flashbacks throughout the book to offer the reader reasons for the characters’ actions. The story takes the form of a progressive plot, the main character “Otter”, begins in the first chapter by providing a background for the reader of the setting and class structure in China. He even asks the reader in the first chapter, “What do you do when your family is so powerful that you lead a charmed life and even your teacher won’t find fault with you?”  Furthermore, he uses flashbacks to give the reader a history of how the class structures formed.  An example would be, when Otter tells the reader about a conversation he had with his mother about why she adopted him.  She explains that she knew he would fit in with their family because his birthday determined him to be a rebel, which foreshadows Otter’s demeanor later in the story.  Otter then explained that his birth parents had been considered “Strangers”. “Strangers” were low on the class structure scale, therefore Otter explained that he was thankful to be raised a “Four Districts” boy, who held a higher placement on the social ladder. The introduction to the conflict arrives when Otter tries to persuade his father and Uncle Foxfire to speak to his mother about him returning with them to America.  The men do this for Otter, yet his mother refuses to let him go feeling that he is not grown up enough to survive, leaving Otter feeling that the village still sees him as a boy. The conflict develops as Otter visits the Dragon’s Gate.  The Dragon’s Gate is located at the top of a waterfall and Chinese mythology says that if a fish can swim upstream and triumphantly pass through the gate then it will turn into a dragon. The gate was also a cultural symbol in China for trials that a boy had to prevail over to become a man. At this point the conflict became clear. Otter wondered if he could overcome difficulties, so that he and others will see him as a man and not just a boy. However, Otter is soon thrust into his opportunity to go to America and prove himself after he accidentally kills a “Manchu”, the ruling dynasty at the time.  After Otter arrives in America he endures many hardships, however the climax of the story came with Otter volunteering to climb to the top of the mountain known as the “Tiger” to detonate explosives in order to send an avalanche of snow away from the railroad workers’ camp. Otter’s Uncle Foxfire volunteered to join him, however was injured on the way up. As a result, Otter completed the mission on his own. I originally thought it was the climax because if successful, Otter would have been allowed to leave the mountain (it was forbidden for any of the workers to leave until the railroad was complete).  However, I realized that it was the climax because all of the events that Otter had experienced culminated in this act of completing the mission on his own. The resolution materialized in Otter sacrificing what he wanted most in order to do what was “right”.  Without revealing the end of the story, Otter began to make decisions that were honorable instead of giving into his own fears and wants, which truly meant that he had passed through the Dragon’s Gate, or earned the right to be and be seen as a man, not a boy. I understood that this was the theme of the story, when he first arrived on the mountain he carelessly spoke harsh words to the “westerners”, garnering him unnecessary punishment and even to his Uncle Foxfire, which resulted in losing his uncle’s respect for a period of time.  Yet, these mistakes became lessons that allowed Otter to enter manhood. This is proven with Otter’s thought at the end of the story concerning he and a westerner friend he had made, named Sean. Otter thought, “We had both grown up building a path for the fire wagon.” The BIG question that came to my mind at the end of the story was, that after dreams and the “Great Work” were discussed throughout the book, the author did not offer any foreshadowing or explanation of what Otter was planning to do since the railroad was complete and he was a free man. Otter’s uncle wanted information from the experience to take back to China and improve the quality of life there, so now that Otter had this knowledge what were his plans? Or did he when Otter wrote in Chinese in the dirt, “I will never forget”?

While the main theme of the story was Otter’s journey to being considered a man, there was also another meaning and purpose of this story qualifying it for the multicultural genre. As stated in our class text about many Asian fiction and nonfiction books, they explain the “oppression that drove the people out of their homelands or the prejudice and adjustments that they faced as newcomers in this country.” This literary work provides all three. First, Otter was forced to leave China because of an accidental encounter where he killed a “Manchu”.  His mother knew that the Manchu would seek Otter and kill him for this act, since the Manchu held the most power in China at that time.  In America, Otter had to realize that even though he came from a predominant family in China and was placed high on the social class structure, in America he was at the bottom.  His realization came when his uncle said to him, “Get it through your head, boy, or you won’t live out a day. In the Middle Kingdom, you and I were on the top of the heap, but here we are on the bottom. Question the bosses or talk back, and they’ll kill you in a dozen different ways.” Otter continually received punishment  and ridicule  for talking back or going against the westerners since he would not adjust to his new class status, which exhibited the foreshadow his mother made about him being a rebel discussed earlier in this blog. As well, the Chinese railroad workers constantly faced prejudice.  Besides the westerners calling every Chinese man a “John”, they were also given the most dangerous jobs, such as hanging from the sides of cliffs to set dynamite and then hoping to be pulled up in time to not be blown up. In addition, their wages were considerably less than that of the white men.  This was exemplified in the text when Otter’s friend Sean, who had been transferred to railroad headquarters, reported to him that the white men made $35 a week and their food was provided, while the Chinese men were paid $30 a week and had to pay for food.  This information prompted Otter to encourage the Chinese workers to strike, ending when the westerners held their food supply.

When evaluating multicultural literature, it is important to authenticate the cultural elements and historical facts used in the text. Initially, I looked to the back matter and found an afterword and bibliography. The afterword explained the author’s process in how the book was written. He even detailed the historical information that was fact, such as the working conditions, avalanches and the strike attempted by the Chinese workers. This information was evidenced by a bibliography of 11 nonfiction sources he had consulted in constructing this novel. I also wanted to verify his facts myself, so I searched the Internet for the “involvement of Chinese workers in the construction of the transcontinental railroad.” Once I found and read information from reliable resources I found that many of the events he detailed in the story were based on historical fact, such as there actually being a Dragon’s Gate in China and it being a Chinese cultural symbol to the fact that the last spike driven into the railroad was made of pure gold.

As suggested in the book, I would recommend this novel for young adults ages 12 and up. Where the historical facts and information about the Chinese culture explained within its pages would be suitable for children below the age of 12, younger students would have difficulty understanding the description given of the human condition through the series of flashbacks and foreshadowing that this author utilized. Moreover, this novel lends itself to being valuable for older children to understand the great sacrifices and hard work of the Chinese in the development of America.  The transcontinental railroad connected the east to the west and made it affordable for each to benefit from each other’s resources, which impacted the American economy greatly during that time period. It is important for students to understand that it was not all done or even mostly done by Caucasian Americans; in this case this achievement should be mostly attributed to the Chinese workers. This is an important point because it would allow students to understand one reason for appreciating the Chinese culture and its people.

My real-life connection to this novel came from Otter.  Who had to endure many hardships to learn life lessons. I moved to Kentucky from my home of Maryland when I was 18 to go to the University of Kentucky.  I had never lived away from my parents and had to learn everything, since there was no one to fix my mistakes.  I had to learn not to be careless with money or take unnecessary risks just like Otter, and like Otter I became an adult because of the experience.  I feel that high school students would most likely make a text-to-self connection with Otter’s want to be treated fairly. This connection could be enforced through a lesson where students analyzed how they wanted to be treated fairly by completing a cause-and-effect chain (i.e. “I want to be treated fairly by getting to use my home computer when I want, because…).  Then students could complete the same graphic organizer for Otter. Last, they could compare and contrast the two to see if their idea of fairness aligns with Otter’s idea of fairness (this may even provide a life lesson for them). In researching this book and its factual validity I found the following sites that offer study guides and instructional units specific to Dragon’s Gate, please see below. - Study Guides for All of the Books in Laurence Yep’s Golden Mountain Chronicles - Dragon’s Gate Literature Unit

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