A story of love, loss, and everything in between, Dragon Springs Road is the deeply moving bildungsroman of a young girl living in China at the beginning of the twentieth century. Only seven years old when the story begins, Jialing lives with her mother, who is the mistress of a wealthy neighbor, in the crumbling Western Residence of a lavish home belonging to the Fong family. Being a young child at the time, there is much about her life that Jialing does not understand: why she must be very quiet and hide in her playroom when Uncle Noble comes to visit her mother; why her mother leaves for days at a time; where her mother goes; and, on one fateful day, why her mother never comes back. This becomes the driving force for the majority of the story as Jialing finds herself in a life of servitude, struggling to come to terms as she grows with why her mother left and the secrets that she kept from her.
Utterly enchanting and captivating in its style, Chang manages to seamlessly embody the narrative voice of a child and allows for Jialing’s storytelling to evolve as she matures. Readers get to immerse themselves in the rare experience of witnessing a young girl flourish into young adulthood, and the many heart-wrenching trials and tribulations that she endures along the way, all within the pages of a single book. Chang accomplishes in 367 pages what some authors fail to accomplish in an entire series of novels; the construction of a highly likable, thoughtful, admirable character who we root for, unflinchingly, from cover to cover.
Along with a phenomenal protagonist whose journey is one of the most profound that I’ve read in years, I feel the need to touch on the sheer vividness of every aspect of the novel from its historical elements to the magical hints of fantasy. When one reads Dragon Springs Road, you truly believe that you have been tossed back into the early years of the Chinese Republic; Chang depicts the China of a century ago in a way which is both enlightening and imaginatively stunning. She provides descriptions so clear that you can see the crumbling homes, which previously were so majestic, and smell the incense burning upon a fox shrine. She conveys the noisy bustle of Dragon Springs Road in such a way that you feel like a peddler could jump off of the page and into the room with you and you wouldn’t even be surprised. Every detail is so wonderfully refined that it makes reading the novel a true sensory pleasure.
Yet, where Janie Chang’s talent as a novelist truly shines is when she mingles the spiritual aspects of Chinese culture into the historical fiction narrative in such a way that it will make lovers of fantasy novels clamor to get their hands on a copy. Throughout the entirety of the novel, Jialing is accompanied and protected as she grows by the fox spirit who resides in the Western Residence of her home; Fox, who at times appears in animal form and in other instances as an elegantly beautiful woman, is the highlight of the entire book. Possessing the quick-witted nature that one would expect of a fox manifested as a person, her sharp attitude and sassy little quips give readers something to chuckle over even when the events of Jialing’s life grow emotionally heavy. Take, for example, Fox’s reaction to Fox Springs Road being renamed Dragon Springs Road years before the events of the novel take place:
She sniffed. “Dragons and phoenixes. It’s always dragons and phoenixes, even though all they do is fly around looking superior. I’ve never met one who bothered doing anything useful.” (pp. 94)
As the sole fantastical character in an otherwise realistic, historically accurate novel, Fox’s disdain for the more popular fantasy animals will tickle readers pink. At the same time, she represents the fiercely spiritual nature of the protagonist’s Chinese culture and, serving as Jialing’s spiritual guide throughout the novel, helps to convey what I feel is Chang’s true message: even in times of hopelessness and adversity, we must always cling to our faith, whatever form it may take. It will always show us a door to something brighter.
For fans of historical fiction, fantasy, coming-of-age stories, or the Lorenzo Reading Series in general, Janie Chang’s Dragon Springs Road is an absolute must-read. You can find more information about Dragon Springs Road and Janie Chang’s other novels on Goodreads.