Pagoda Dreamer
by Judith March Davis

Langdon Street Press, 2010. ISBN 978-1-934-93890-4.
Reviewed by Sharon Lippincott
Posted on 04/04/2010

Nonfiction: Biography; Nonfiction: History/Current Events

To fully know and understand oneself is a lifelong challenge; to understand fully another person is virtually impossible. Opening a window to perception of a parent may be one of the greatest challenges. Doing so could confront deeply held beliefs and expectations we have built up about them. Some may hesitate to try.

Such was the case when author Judith March Davis was cleaning out her recently deceased Aunt Lurry's apartment and discovered a huge box of letters that her mother, Dorothy Rowe March, Doré as she came to be known after marriage, had written to her aunt over a period of nearly fifty years. The letters began in 1920 when Dorothy was in her early twenties and living in China, where she grew up. Davis didn't feel ready to read those letters in 1986 when she took them home. She writes: "It took thirteen more years to feel ready to "face anything I might learn about my mother." Another four years passed before she discovered an overview of her life Doré had written for a publisher. That discovery inspired Davis to combine her own memories and selected family photographs with special excerpts from the letters, to weave a comprehensive story of her mother's noteworthy life.

The early part of the book provides rich insight into life in China in the first decades of the twentieth century. Harry and Margaret Rowe sailed for China as missionaries in 1898, when Dorothy was only nine weeks old. Dorothy loved China; during her early years, because she spent most of her time with an amah, she became fluent in Chinese before English. Her fluency in Chinese at age three saved her family from instant death at the hands of ten Boxers during the Boxer Rebellion—the account is heart stopping.

In 1925, she married Ben March. They lived happily in Peking (now Beijing) until their return to America in 1927, when he was offered a position on the faculty of Columbia University. From that time on, she continued to live life on her own terms, yet her lifelong dream of exotic travel and returning to the land of pagodas was never realized.

Davis reports in the prologue that "the letters are so beautifully written that they are impossible to ignore—or to burn." Indeed, the descriptions of place and emotion are succulent and compelling and a source of inspiration. For example, Doré writes, "...the lazy Yangtze winds like a yellow ribbon binding some old picture album." About Peking she writes, "From the wall of the Tartar City, it fascinates and allures as the gold dust of sunset and the smoke of chimney fires combine to form a gauze above the yellow and green tiles of imperial roofs and the weird cosmopolitan buildings of legation quarter."

Later letters were full of the outpourings of Doré's heart. She wrote letters to Lurry the way many people journal—no holds barred. The letters are passionately intimate in detail, exploring her reactions to the birth of a stillborn son, her husband's death when Doré's daughter, the author Davis, was only five, severe health challenges, her work at the University of Michigan, and the challenges of single parenthood.

I was captivated by this story of two remarkable women and their ability to thrive through challenges and times when many felt lucky to survive. Davis' deft ability to synthesize the letters into a cohesive story and her mother's eloquence combine with transcendent synergy. Suspense and tension ebb and flow with all the drama of a best-selling novel. This volume should serve well as an example for anyone attempting to derive story from old letters or journals to which they have fallen heir.

As the only child of Dorothy Rowe and Benjamin F. March, Judith March Davis is uniquely qualified to tell this story. She grew up surrounded by the treasured artifacts brought by her parents from China to America, and she was profoundly influenced by her mother's Asian philosophy of life. Educated at Oberlin College and the University of Michigan, Davis wrote professionally in Traverse City, MI, and as a staff writer at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. She and her husband Ethan Davis are now retired in Prescott, AZ.

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The reviewer received a copy of this book for review from the publisher.

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