review: The Lost Ryū

title: The Lost Ryū
author: Emi Watanabe Cohen
date: Levine Querido, 2022
main character: Fujiwara Kohei

Emi Wantanabe Cohen grew up mixed race in Canada. She began writing in the third grade. The Lost Ryū is her first published novel. The story is set 20 years after the end of World War II which means we’re looking at the first generation of Jewish people post Holocaust, and the first of the Japanese post war, post Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and post imperialism. These would be generations carrying vestiges of community and family trauma. Many of these children would never have known their grandparents. Sounds intense, doesn’t it? In the midst of this, though, there are dragons. The big dragons we all imagine, whether those from western or eastern lore, that breathe fire or clouds, have webbed wings, control water, and shake the ground when they move no longer exist. There are only the small ones that perch on their person’s shoulder.

Kohei is excited that a family from the United States is coming to visit. He’s never seen a western dragon and he’s hoping it will be a big one. Imagine his disappointment when, it’s not only small, but it only speaks Yiddish, and he doesn’t. He’s never even heard of the language.

Kohei’s grandfather suddenly becomes ill and based upon the vague memory that Kohei has, his grandfather would be able to rally his health if he could see another big dragon. So, he gathers Isolde, his new neighbor from the US, both their dragons, and they begin a quest to find a big dragon.

Middle grade books, good middle grade books, are fascinating. They manage to create such a complex world with minimal text, layer meanings, and connect with readers in books that seem timeless. This is a good middle grade book. This review, might be disjointed, but I find the more I like a book, the more difficult it can be to focus my thoughts.

Cohen easily brought her mixed-race identity to the story. At one point, Kohei remarks that Isolde is half western and half eastern. She begins responding to him with her voice muffled, but her thoughts are clear as she claims her own identity.

“I’m not half anything. I’m not divided into parts, I’m just me: one single person that’s a bunch of things all at once.” (p. 89)  We realize Isolde (like Kohei) is carrying what some would consider the ‘weight’ of other people’s decisions but, to her this is just who she is; it’s an identity she never seems to have struggle with, even though others might. She tries to help Kohei understand because he’s becoming her friend.

“Pick a side,” Kohei echoed. He felt a bit lost. Maybe he needed to review some of these English words.

Isolde huffed and turned to the window, staring at the landscapes skipping past. “Maybe…maybe it’s different in Japan” she said. “But in American, race is everything. For some people, it’s all they understand—it’s the only thing they care about. And I don’t fit. I can’t be both I have to be either, which sort of means neither. Does that make sense? People don’t know whether or not they’re supposed to hate me—if I’m part of us or port of them.” (p 90)

Isolde’s ability to talk things through is one of her strengths. She makes a good friend. As does Kohei with his deep-seated thoughts and tenacity. What a pair! And, there are dragons!