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Review: Dragon House, John Shors

When Iris’s father dies, she finds that she wants to continue his legacy by establishing his children’s center in Vietnam.    The center was not completed and Iris decides to abandon her career as newspaper book reviewer and fly to Vietnam to help.  She takes her neighbor Noah with her, a man impaired both physically and mentally from his experience in the Iraq War, in the hopes that a purpose will give his life meaning and direction.  In Saigon, Iris and Noah are amazed by the kindness and warmth of the Vietnamese and the clever street children, who quickly realize the goals of the center and wish to be enrolled.  In this cutthroat world, however, it isn’t all as easy as it should be, and Iris and Noah find themselves fighting to save the children they come to love.

It seems to me that this is a book about hope.  Iris hopes to build a center beyond all the others, to truly educate girls and make them into productive and happy citizens.  Noah eventually learns to hope again through Thien, who is at peace with the universe.  The children all hope to be let into the center, so they have a chance for a brighter future.  Everyone is making something better, whether it’s themselves or society, and the entire book has a bright, cheerful message in the end.

While Iris and Noah are admirable people, it is really the street children who make this book the wonderful read it is.  There are three children who are really focused on, Minh, Mai, and Tam.  Minh and Mai are brother and sister; Minh doesn’t talk, has only one hand, and plays connect four with tourists to earn money, while Mai acts as his voice and sells fans.  They are bright, innovative children and it’s impossible not to completely fall in love with them and hope that they can seize a brighter future through Iris and Noah.  Unfortunately, they have a more powerful man who has them under his thumb and who insists on making things difficult.  Tam is a very sick girl who is mostly cared for by her grandmother, and it’s here that the tragic aspect of the book makes its mark.  Tam is suffering from childhood leukemia and 90% of children survive it if they get care early enough.  Unfortunately, Tam did not, given that they live on the street, and while her personality is almost completely obscured by her illness, the love between her and her grandmother is so touching, as is the attitude of all the other characters towards them.

Saigon itself (as it is called in the book) almost acts as a character; since Minh and Mai are poor they move around quite a lot and allow descriptions of most of the city, as well as the hovels in which they and Tam live.  I really enjoyed the descriptions in the book and felt that the author did an admirable job contrasting wealth and poverty and getting across the feel of both the city and the Vietnamese people.  The plot is not particularly tight, especially in the beginning, but it doesn’t seem to matter because I was too busy enjoying the characters and descriptions and hoping for something better to come their way.

Dragon House is completely different from John Shors’s other work, but I really enjoyed my time spent with it.  It is both a charming story and inspires us to do something better in the world by exposing the evils he’s seen.  I definitely recommend it.

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