While some say that this novel defies genre, I’d say rather that it’s much more fully a memoir than most, in that it captures a much more complete picture of Kingston’s girlhood than if she had restricted herself to simply dates, names, and events. There are names, dates, and events, with scenes set in her childhood home and the laundry her parents ran and the children worked at. There are scenes at school, of cruelty and play. But there are also more mythopoetic scenes, of a girlhood taken up into the sky to be trained as a bird and then as a dragon. There are stories of her ancestors, of women being stoned to death for adultery and men who leave their wives behind in China to create new lives—with new wives—in America.
But primarily, this is a story about women, and about identity, and how a Chinese-American woman discovers her own identity between and within these two cultures. Her own knowledge of how her ancestors suffered for being female—whether for being found pregnant and unmarried, which led to infanticide and suicide for that un-acknowledged aunt in China, or watching her own aunt suffer as she discovers that the husband who has financially supported her for years in China has taken a new wife in America—weighs on and informs Kingston, who strives to emulate the other stories of Chinese women, those of the dragon women, the women warriors for whom the book is named. Even the women whose stories she recounts who survive physically often end up—in America, at least—committed to insane asylums, demonstrating the difficulty so many women have balancing the often contradictory requirements of the two cultures. Kingston’s answer, in this beautiful prose, is to be a warrior, a dragon woman, one who knows how to recognize dragons in the landscape.