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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 505

The novel is set in eighteenth-century Bhutan, and Kernaghan bases her story on Tibetan Buddhist legends of a journey to the mystical kingdom of Shambhala, beyond the furthest snow peaks.

This novel evolved partly from the author's interest in Tibetan Buddhism. Before she began writing Dance of the Snow Dragon, ...

(The entire section contains 1877 words.)

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The novel is set in eighteenth-century Bhutan, and Kernaghan bases her story on Tibetan Buddhist legends of a journey to the mystical kingdom of Shambhala, beyond the furthest snow peaks.

This novel evolved partly from the author's interest in Tibetan Buddhism. Before she began writing Dance of the Snow Dragon, she had just finished a non-fiction book, Walking after Midnight, which involved research into eastern philosophies and an interview with the Dalai Lama. About that time, a friend and writing partner, Mary Choo, had been fascinated with the Royal Bhutanese Dance Troupe when they performed in Vancouver. Choo suggested that Kernaghan try Bhutan for the setting of a new fantasy, since Tibetan Buddhism has been preserved there in a very pure form. Though Kernaghan knew absolutely nothing about Bhutan at the time, she went to the library. After reading everything she could find on Bhutan—history, geography, folklore, travel books, and a great number of books on Tibetan Buddhism and the influence of Bon animism—a story began to develop.

Kernaghan took special care to get videos and guidebooks, photographs and travel brochures from the Bhutanese government and travelers and performers. She attended a lecture by a woman doctor who had lived in Bhutan and heard the monks of the Drepung Monastery on tour at Simon Fraser University. She even got an eyewitness account of the Kalachakra Initiation ceremony from her daughter Sue, who had attended when it was held in the Indian Himalayas. She learned that modern life in Bhutan is similar in many ways to life in the eighteenth century.

Sangay's early home life is not full of the material comforts and leisure expected by most North American families. His family members are subsistence farmers and yak herders. But the home-grown food and shelter are more than adequate, though simple (he sleeps on the floor, near the fire). The labor is steady and shared, and the emotional comforts are sustaining for the young boy and all his family. The reader learns quickly that Sangay feels at home in his family, in his village, and in the world. He knows where food and clothing and shelter come from, and he knows what is required of him in this place where he belongs.

The monastery contrasts strongly with the simple homes of Sangay's village. Set higher in the mountains, this grand stone complex shelters dozens of monks in plain cells. The chill of the stone floors is austere compared to the size of the halls and meeting spaces. But it is in the writings and the shrines and the tapestries that the monastery reveals its wealth, a spiritual continuity with the past that will sustain the world for the future.

On his journey, Sangay learns finally about the wild places of the world he lives in, moving through barren or lush ground and navigating spiritual and mundane dangers with the aid of Jatsang. He learns that mundane threats can be faced and overcome with effort and help; far more dangerous are human greeds and fears.

Literary Qualities

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The novel is divided into several parts, most of them longer than a chapter, each dealing with a different part of Sangay's life. This is a practical division and less arbitrary than short chapters. At the climax of the story, his time in Shambhala is described under the title "Dance of the Snow Dragon," a title fittingly assigned to the entire book. (It is a far more suitable title than, say, "Sangay the Monk" or "Adventures in Shamhala" would be.) The Snow Dragon is a mythical and symbolic beast, an elemental that is summoned to protect the kingdom of Shambhala and the knowledge by which Shambhala sustains the mundane world.

A metaphor maintained throughout the novel is that the dances the monks study reproduce in microcosm the world itself. The Snow Dragon moving in its dance makes up the world and sustains it. This is a far more active metaphor than the Midgard Serpent of Norse Mythology: picture Ourobouros not only girdling the world but marking out its borders and defending it from destructive invaders. What has previously been the story of one monk who sees a little farther than his own small life is entered briefly by a creature too grand to be seen in its entirety.

In this novel that includes so many meals and footsteps, Kernaghan achieves not only heroic deeds but grand metaphor and philosophy, and brings the reader home for a feast.
Both Sangay's early life with his parents and his long journey on foot are described with great attention to sensory detail. The closest many North American readers come to some of Sangay's experiences could be on a prolonged camping trip or a wilderness retreat. Kernaghan does not shy away from the aches and pains that Sangay endures, nor does she make a tedious list of all possible complaints. Realism, for this author, does not get in the way of the narrative or the advancing plot.

Throughout the novel, Kernaghan uses sounds and smells, warmth and chill, hunger and satisfaction to give the reader a strong sense of Sangay's experiences. This is a multi-sensory narrative, which uses more than mere visual images and dialogue to tell a story. It would have great appeal when read aloud, but may mean most to readers who can gallop through the pages at their own pace.

Social Sensitivity

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There is no proselytizing in Kernaghan's novel Dance of the Snow Dragon. Instead, the reader can rely on the internally consistent story and on Sangay's confidence that he is part of the natural world and shapes it with his thoughts and beliefs. There is no necessity for the reader to take on or to put aside any personal faith in order to sustain interest in Sangay's adventures. The rituals and ceremonies that Sangay learns as a young monk will not offend the belief systems of most Western readers. The devotions and venerations of this young monk are compatible enough with Judeo-Christian beliefs (for example) that few readers would reject Sangay and his quest as worthless merely because of being "heathen."

When the Pope and the Dalai Lama met and talked in ecumenical friendship, they stated clearly that there is a need for greater understanding between Eastern and Western faiths, and that each has much to learn from the other. This book is a noble effort toward that goal and as such can be particularly recommended for religious studies programs.

Young Buddhists living in North America may enjoy this book not only because Sangay is a Buddhist, but because his faith is presented in a straightforward fashion. It does not seem exotic or foreign, partly because the story is set in an isolated part of the world where it is not being compared to other faiths. It does not need any explanation or justification, any more than Sangay's mother needs to explain her love for her son. In this story, Buddhist beliefs are the norm.

Kernaghan states in an interview with Mary Choo for Canadian Children's Literature, her belief that anyone living in Canada becomes aware of and is affected by cultural diversity. For thirty years, she lived in a suburb of Vancouver, an increasingly multicultural community with neighbors from every corner of the globe, including a household of Tibetan monks. Growing up in a largely Ukrainian farming community, the author became aware early on that there are many different patterns of belief and many different ways of looking at the world. Her fascination with how people of other cultures perceive their world finds its way into her writing, as does her fascination with how people are alike in many ways in spite of apparent differences.

For Further Reference

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 406

Barbour, Douglas. "Snow Dragon Breathes the Magic of Life's Journey." Edmonton Journal (November 26, 1995). In this review, Barbour stated, "Kernaghan tells this story like an ancient fable, and the magic of Sangay's travels is subtly underlined by the understated quality of her prose."

Beaty, Mary. Quill & Quire (June 1995). Comparing the latter chapters of the book to J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, Beaty gives Dance of the Snow Dragon a positive review, saying "Kernaghan unwinds this tale with powerful force and tight control."

Bennett, Nancy. "The Women of the Lonely Cry." Scavenger's Newsletter (November 2000): 2-4. An interview with Bennett about her early writing efforts.

The Blue Jean Collection. Edited by Peter Carver. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan: Thistledown Press, 1992. Anthology of young adult short fiction, including Kernaghan's "The Tulpa," an excerpt from Dance of the Snow Dragon.

Choo, Mary E. Canadian Children's Literature (2001). An interview with Bennett for a future issue.

Deakin, Andrea. Sun (Vancouver) (August 26, 1995). In this review of Dance of the Snow Dragon, Deakin claimed that "This is one of the best fantasies for young people that I have read for some time."

Kirk, Heather. Books in Canada (October 1995). Kirk describes Dance of the Snow Dragon as "Lushly cinematic with visual splendours of flora, fauna, costume and creature—magic, dreamed, real, and combinations thereof."

Lyons, Terri L. "A Spiritual Quest: Dance of the Snow Dragon." Canadian Children's Literature (1996): 81. Lyons writes, "This is an extremely detailed, beautifully written novel."

Tesseracts 7. Edited by Paula Johanson and Jean-Louis Trudel. Edmonton, Alberta: Tesseract Books, 1999. Part of an ongoing series publishing select Canadian science fiction stories, this volume includes "Seven Things I Know" by Kernaghan.

The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, Ninth Annual Collection. Edited by Terri Windling. New York: St. Martin's, 1996. An anthology that includes "Dragon-Rain," a story that features Jatsang, by Kernaghan.

Choo, Mary E. "The Road to Shambhala: Interview with Eileen Kernaghan." The Lonely Cry Online http://www2.portal. ca/~lonewolf. March 28, 2001. Features an interview with Kernaghan that discusses Dance of the Snow Dragon.

Dumars, Denise. Fandom http://www. August 18, 2000. Review of Dance of the Snow Dragon. Dumars suggests that "Kernaghan's novels are exciting adventures that take the reader into strange lands and remote, fascinating cultures. . . . [H]ighly recommended for fantasy fans and lovers of magic and myth."

Dumars. "Magic and Myth: The Young Adult Fantasy Novels of Eileen Kernaghan." Fandom http://www. August 18, 2000. Interview with Kernaghan about Dance of the Snow Dragon.

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