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The Friendship Doll: Kirby Larson

Book: The Friendship Doll
Author: Kirby Larson
Pages: 208
Age Range: 9-12

Friendship-dollKirby Larson's Hattie Big Sky was one of my favorite reads in 2006. Others agreed. Hattie was awarded a Newbery Honor in 2007. Thus when I heard that the author had published another historical novel, one inspired by a picture that she ran across while researching Hattie, I couldn't resist.

The Friendship Doll was inspired by a real-life gift of 58 dolls sent to the US by Japan as Ambassadors of Friendship in 1927. Kirby Larson imagines the journey of one of the dolls. Miss Kanagawa's creator wishes that she fulfill "a doll's true purpose: to be awakened by the heart of a child" (Page 4). What actually happens is that Miss Kanagawa has her heart awakened and softened via her interactions with four very different girls from 1928 through 1941. Miss Kanagawa, in turn, helps each of the girls at a difficult time in her life.

Short sections of the book are narrated by Miss Kanagawa. The majority of the book is written in the third person, each section told from the viewpoint of one of the girls (plus a couple of other people where needed). There are also invoices, news stories (fictionalized accounts based on actual events) and letters interspersed. These various viewpoints combine to provide a multi-faceted view of the Great Depression.

I must admit that it took me a little while to get into The Friendship Doll, because I didn't much care for the first little girl to interact with Miss Kanagawa (Bunny). But the last two (book-loving Willie Mae in particular) completely pulled me in. They made me smile, but also tugged at my heartstrings. All of the voices in the novel are quite distinct (particularly Miss Kanagawa's).

There's a scene in which Willie Mae thinks of what Sara Crewe from A Little Princess would do to "put some steel in her (own) spine." I can picture future readers of The Friendship Doll thinking of what Lois, Willie Mae, Lucy, or even Bunny might do in a given situation, to guide their own behavior. The Friendship Doll isn't a lesson-y book, but there are unflinching looks at what is and isn't the right thing to do.

It's also a book that may make modern readers a bit more appreciative of their own creature comforts. Larson doesn't shy away from the details and difficulties of life during the Depression. After losing their farm, Lucy and her father drive from Oklahoma to Oregon, looking for work. They get work picking crops where they can, sleep in their car, and "visit the bushes" on the side of the road as needed for calls of nature. When they finally land in a Farm Security Administration camp, Lucy writes to Mrs. Roosevelt to thank her, saying:

"But now there's a shower so I can be clean and there's breakfast for us children for a penny a day. I've had breakfast three times in one week! I'll be so fat soon, I won't fit in my overalls."

Willie Mae, a poor girl from rural Kentucky, is similarly thrilled when she has the temporary opportunity to live and work in the home of a well-off family. Here she is, first seeing her attic room:

"It might not have been fancy to someone like Mrs. Trent, but to Willie Mae, this room was a Cinderella surprise. A tidy bed, covered in a chenille bedspread of blue and pink roses, was tucked snug under the dormer. Willie Mae moved to it, running her fingers over the bumpy chenille. She imagined herself lying there--a whole bed all to herself!--and looking through those sheer white curtains to the sky outside." (Page 106)

She is also quite thrilled when she learns that there is an indoor bathroom that she can use.

Quite a few sad things happen in The Friendship Doll, deaths, lost homes, and being shut up for years in a trunk (this happens to Miss Kanagawa, not any of the girls). But it's not a depressing book. The things that happen are representative of a more difficult time, when medicine wasn't as available as it is today and jobs were  scarce. People don't sit around feeling sorry for themselves (not Larson's characters, anyway, or only temporarily).

Lois, the second girl, breaks her collarbone trying to fly by jumping off the barn roof with an umbrella. She later attends the Chicago World's Fair, and sees marvel upon marvel. Bunny's older sister frets about her coming out party, while Lucy just wants to see the ocean.

This is well-done historical fiction. There are authentic tidbits everywhere, but they are all in service to the story - to showing what life was like for these particular girls, and how the quiet influence of Miss Kanagawa affected them. I should add that although Miss Kanagawa interacts with the girls through a sort of mental connection, she doesn't actually move around, or take any physical action. So, I consider this novel to be historical fiction, and not fantasy (though there's a bit of genre-blurring).

The Friendship Doll has a lot to like: a basis in an obscure but kid-friendly historical event; strong, three-dimensional characters; full realized settings; and enough of a narrative mix to appeal to readers with a range of skill levels. Fans of Hattie Big Sky will especially not want to miss The Friendship Doll (which, though different, has a bit of a similar feel). Highly recommended for middle grade readers, anyone who enjoys historical fiction, and anyone who has ever wondered what a doll might be thinking.

Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids)
Publication Date: May 10, 2011
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. All Amazon links in this post are affiliate links, and may result in my receiving a small commission on purchases (with no additional cost to you).