Dragonwings is a novel for young readers about Moon Shadow Lee, a Chinese boy who immigrates to America in 1903.
- Moon Shadow leaves behind his mother in China to live with his father, Windrider, in San Francisco, where they work for the family business, a laundromat.
- Windrider and Moon Shadow move to Oakland to build an airplane, called Dragonwings, together. There Moon Shadow befriends a girl named Robin and her aunt, Miss Whitlaw.
- Windrider takes flight in Dragonwings but crashes. He decides to focus on his family rather than flying, and he and Moon Shadow bring Moon Shadow’s mother to America.
Last Updated on July 7, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1273
The novel is told from the first-person perspective of Moon Shadow, who begins his story when he is seven years old and living in China with his mother. The two are able to communicate with Moon Shadow’s father, Windrider, via letters; they pay the village schoolmaster to read Windrider’s letters to them and then to write replies which they dictate. Windrider left for America before Moon Shadow was born, so Moon Shadow is incredibly curious about his father’s life, particularly his legendary kite-making skills. Windrider sends money back home to his wife and son, which is a common arrangement for families split between America and China in 1903.
One day shortly after Moon Shadow’s eighth birthday, Moon Shadow’s cousin Hand Clap arrives to escort him to San Francisco to live with his father. Upon arriving in San Francisco, Moon Shadow is introduced to the “Company”: a group of men, including his father, who are family and own a laundry service together. Uncle Bright Star is the leader of the group. Lefty is a poet who is missing a hand. White Deer is a devout Buddhist and a vegetarian and serves as the cook for the group. Hand Clap has a vibrant personality and imagination.
On his first night in America, Moon Shadow witnesses the terror caused by the “demons,” which is the term Moon Shadow’s family uses for White people. A group of demons run through the streets of the Tang Chinese people’s village and throw a brick through the laundromat’s window. Eventually, they move on, but the tension of this moment solidifies young Moon Shadow’s distrust of the demons.
Moon Shadow begins to study the demons’ language, English, as he works with his father delivering laundry. Windrider tells him about an especially meaningful dream he once had: in this dream, Windrider saved the life of the Dragon King, who told Windrider that he was once a great dragon in a former life and that if he passed a series of tests while living as a human, he would become a dragon once more.
Windrider enjoys working with his hands and repairing gadgets, and one day he encounters a demon whose automobile has broken down. After repairing it and refusing payment, Windrider makes a favorable impression on the demon, Mr. Alger, who promises him a job as a handyman if he ever needs it.
Black Dog, Uncle Bright Star’s son, struggles with opium addiction. One day he attacks Moon Shadow and takes the laundry money Moon Shadow has collected. Windrider avenges his son’s honor by fighting Black Dog and winning, but he also kills another man in self-defense during this fight. In order to avoid conflict with the dead man’s family, Windrider and Moon Shadow are forced to leave the Company. Windrider arranges to work for Mr. Alger, and he and Moon Shadow move into a stable behind Miss Whitlaw’s boarding house.
Moon Shadow finds that Miss Whitlaw is unusually kind for a demon. She listens with interest to his stories and asks questions about Chinese culture. She has a stained glass window in her home that features a dragon, which Moon Shadow feels is one of the most beautiful things he has ever seen.
Miss Whitlaw lives with her niece, Robin, who becomes a good friend to Moon Shadow. Robin loans him books to read, and the two share their cultures with each other over time. Moon Shadow also enlists the help of Miss Whitlaw in writing to the Wright Brothers to gain insight into flight and airplane engineering so that he can aid his father’s efforts in constructing his own airplane. Windrider is at first upset with his son for sharing his dreams with Miss Whitlaw but soon comes to appreciate the help Miss Whitlaw can provide.
Moon Shadow finds that the other demons in their neighborhood are not nearly as kind as Robin, and after a group of boys throw rocks at him one day, he takes great pains to avoid them completely. Robin discovers that Moon Shadow is afraid of the boys and tells him that Jack, the boys’ leader, is afraid of blood and particularly fears being punched in the nose. When another confrontation arises with Jack, Moon Shadow punches him, and Jack is so impressed that he backs down.
The year is now 1906. One morning, Moon Shadow rises around five o’clock to fetch water from the pump outside when an earthquake strikes. He is horror-stricken as he watches his neighborhood crumble around him and sees Jack and his family fall to their deaths after their flimsy house collapses. Miss Whitlaw’s house was constructed by her father, and it is solid enough to withstand the initial devastation.
After Miss Whitlaw, Robin, Windrider, and Moon Shadow spend hours digging for survivors, they learn that a great fire resulting from the earthquake is headed their way. They move the injured to a safer location in Golden Gate Park and then try to save as many of Miss Whitlaw’s possessions as possible, packing everything—including the beautiful stained glass window—into a wagon. The group remains at the park while fire ravages their neighborhood and much of San Francisco. The Company reunites, and they share a peaceful meal with Miss Whitlaw and Robin.
After spending days being moved around San Francisco while authorities refuse to allow the Tang people to return to their community, Uncle Bright Star strikes a deal that allows the family to return and begin rebuilding. Four months after the earthquake, Miss Whitlaw decides to move to Oakland to become a housekeeper, as she has lost her sole source of income with the destruction of her home.
Windrider shares his dreams of constructing an airplane with the Company and tells him that he needs to leave to pursue this goal. The Company believes his plan is crazy, but Moon Shadow supports his father, and together they leave to live in a drafty barn in Oakland. Eventually, Windrider succeeds in constructing the airplane, which he and Moon Shadow paint to resemble a dragon and name Dragonwings. It has taken great effort for Moon Shadow and his father to save the money needed to construct the airplane, and they have always hoped to save enough to bring Moon Shadow’s mother to America as well.
One day, Black Dog arrives and holds Moon Shadow at knifepoint, threatening to kill him unless he and Windrider give him all their money. Windrider finds their savings and hands it to Black Dog. He and Moon Shadow are devastated that they were so close to flying and now cannot afford to even transport the airplane to the site they had planned to launch it from.
The next morning, the Company arrives and offers to physically haul the airplane to the launch site. Although it is a strenuous feat, they succeed, and just after Miss Whitlaw and Robin arrive, Windrider successfully takes flight in Dragonwings. After a few minutes, however, the airplane’s frame snaps. Dragonwings crashes into a hillside, and Windrider is injured, suffering several broken bones. Instead of choosing to construct a new airplane, he decides to focus on his family. Windrider says that when he saw the hillside rushing at him, he realized that family is more important than flying.
Windrider becomes a partner in the Company’s laundromat and uses the money to bring Moon Shadow’s mother to America. Moon Shadow continues his close friendship with Miss Whitlaw and Robin, and he and Robin reflect on how lucky they are as the novel closes.
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