The Lost Ryū

  • Review
By – August 1, 2022

The pop­u­lar image of drag­ons that many read­ers hold will be decid­ed­ly chal­lenged in Emi Watan­abe Cohen’s new mid­dle-grade nov­el. Instead of the fire-breath­ing winged beast of west­ern folk­lore, read­ers will meet a dif­fer­ent breed of the crea­ture. Indeed, in this sto­ry of emo­tion­al growth, every­one has a ryū, a drag­on with unique traits and an indeli­ble role to play as the dra­ma unfolds.

The nov­el takes place in 1960s Japan, where ten-year-old Kohei Fuji­wara is try­ing to make sense of his dam­aged fam­i­ly: a father who died, a moth­er under stress, and an ill, angry grand­fa­ther. When an Amer­i­can girl of mixed Japan­ese and Jew­ish ances­try moves into their build­ing, he learns that he is not alone in his confusion.

Cohen grad­u­al­ly intro­duces some of the para­dox­es of post­war life in Japan, a coun­try that was defeat­ed by the Allied forces after years of dic­ta­tor­ship under a cor­rupt fas­cist gov­ern­ment. Much about this igno­min­ious past is left unsaid but implic­it­ly addressed through the often-repeat­ed state­ment shika­ta ga nai, or noth­ing can be done to change the sit­u­a­tion.” But Kohei remem­bers a father who defied this cul­ture of denial, rather giv­ing his son a mes­sage of persistence.

The fan­tas­tic ele­ment of the plot, includ­ing drag­ons and how to breed them, melds smooth­ly into the real­is­tic frame­work of the char­ac­ters’ dilem­mas. Kohei is aware that his grandfather’s dis­tress is relat­ed to a lost type of drag­on. Mean­while, the boy’s own per­son­al ryū is small, pink, and sar­cas­tic. So much for the huge, winged men­aces of medieval stories!

When Isol­de Carter and her fam­i­ly become the ten­ants of Kohei’s fam­i­ly, he grows sus­pi­cious of her over­tures towards friend­ship. Isolde’s drag­on intro­duces more cul­tur­al ques­tions. To Kohei’s ini­tial annoy­ance, the west­ern vari­ety he was excit­ed to encounter actu­al­ly speaks Yid­dish, which an angry Isol­de vehe­ment­ly points out is a real lan­guage.” Japan­ese and Jew­ish his­to­ry, west­ern and east­ern drag­ons, and fam­i­lies divid­ed by dif­fer­ence are some of the novel’s themes, but per­son­al idio­syn­crasies nec­es­sar­i­ly inter­vene. These sub­tle sur­pris­es keep the nov­el from veer­ing towards cliché.

There is an abun­dance of infor­ma­tion about Japan­ese lan­guage and cul­ture, includ­ing many translit­er­at­ed phras­es that pro­vide a more imme­di­ate con­nec­tion to the char­ac­ters. By con­trast, there is almost no use of Yid­dish, despite the promis­ing plot point about Isolde’s drag­on. Nev­er­the­less, the author shows great sen­si­tiv­i­ty to the ways that both chil­dren feel torn by their dual iden­ti­ties — a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion that is also reflect­ed in their quest to locate a drag­on who will heal Kohei’s grandfather.

There is one jar­ring moment when Isol­de equates, if only implic­it­ly, the uncon­sti­tu­tion­al intern­ment of Japan­ese Amer­i­cans with Nazi exter­mi­na­tion camps. The liken­ing is a reminder of how dif­fi­cult it is to hon­or all loss­es with­out eras­ing dis­tinc­tions between them. Emi Watan­abe Cohen has cre­at­ed a com­pelling response to that truth.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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