The Puzzle of the Paper Daughter

Published in 2010; author Kathryn Reiss; illustrator Jean-Paul Tibbles


Julie is going through some donations for Gladrags when she finds an old note written in what looks like Chinese. She shows it to Ivy when she sees her next, at Ivy's grandparents' restaurant. Ivy translates the note, but it doesn't make sense. It's just a list of random things. Her Chinese school teacher is also eating there, and Ivy asks her to look at it. The teacher is pleased with Ivy's studying. She's translated the note correctly. She suggests Ivy take the note to her grandparents who can explain why someone would carry a list like this. Ivy's grandmother not only knows why, but the list is hers. It was written by her mother, Ivy's great-grandmother, as a study guide for when Ivy's grandmother would arrive in California. Ivy's great-grandfather had been living and working in San Francisco for some time already, and sent for his wife and daughter. His wife was too ill to travel and died soon after, but she sent the list along knowing that all Chinese immigrants would be subjected to grueling interviews to prove they were who they claimed. Ivy's grandmother had lost the note almost immediately, not realizing it had slide into the lining of her coat, which she then donated all those years later.

One girl traveling with Ivy's grandmother was Mei Meng, an orphan who was posing as the daughter of a couple already in the United States (a daughter only on paper; a "paper daughter"). Mei had her own study guide, but it was much more important for her. She had to convince the immigration officials she was the couple's daughter or she'd have to go back to China. Ivy's grandmother passed her interview and was able to leave the immigration station (an unpleasant place approaching the atmosphere of a jail) after about five weeks. Excited though she was to see her father, now her only living parent, she was sad to leave Mei. Mei did pass her interview a couple weeks later, but Ivy's grandmother lost touch with her and only heard that she'd passed after a few years, from a mutual acquaintance. 

Julie and Ivy spend the night with Ivy's grandparents after dinner, but as they head up from the restaurant to the apartment, they see that someone's broken in. The police are quickly summoned, but all that's missing are Julie's and Ivy's dolls. The next morning Julie finds Ivy's doll in the dumpster when the girls take a bag of trash out...and the doll's head is ripped off. Julie remembers part of the note, about how important Ivy's grandmother's doll was to her. But that had confused Ivy's grandmother; she was fifteen and while the doll was nostalgic, it wasn't particularly special and she ended up giving her doll to Mei while waiting for her interview. Is there some connection, or is it a coincidence? And where is Julie's doll?

Talking things over with Ivy, Julie's convinced that the odd parts of the note were actually a code, meant to tell Ivy's grandmother something important about the doll. Someone in the restaurant must have cracked the code, and mistaken Julie's and Ivy's dolls for the other one. The girls start looking for more clues. They find Julie's doll in an alley, with its head popped off too, and learn some more about the awful way Chinese immigrants were treated. They decide to try to find Mei, who might still have the doll. They conclude, after looking through some of Ivy's grandmother's correspondence and a visit to Angel Island, that a valuable necklace which Ivy's grandmother was supposed to bring to the US but was never given must have been hidden inside her doll (can I brag about figuring that out about a hundred pages before Julie and Ivy, even though this book is meant for eight- and nine-year-olds and I'll be thirty in November?). They spend an afternoon at the library looking through newspapers on microfiche and find Mei's wedding announcement and the announcement of the birth of her son (she sent Ivy's grandmother a Christmas card about forty years prior and mentioned the names of her husband and child), then poring over a phone book. After some awkward phone calls, they find Mei's son! Mei and Ivy's grandmother are able to reunite.

Something interesting happens though: Ivy and Julie accompany Ivy's grandparents to the meeting, and Mei's son stops by Mei's house on the way to the convalescent home where Mei is recovering from an injury (Mei is now widowed). They happen upon a burglar going through Mei's doll collection! The burglar is scared off, and they continue to the convalescent home to call the police, as service at Mei's is temporarily disconnected. There, Julie and Ivy finally divulge their suspicions about the doll and the necklace, and Mei reveals that she has that doll with her, for good luck. Carefully, they snip some threads around the seams of the rag doll, and sure enough, there's the necklace. Ivy's grandparents insist they sell it and split the proceeds with Mei when Mei tries to return the necklace to them. After all, she kept it safe for decades.

So that's settled, but who was looking for the doll? In a contrived way, Julie and Ivy realize that a boy in Ivy's Chinese school, who was at the restaurant that night, overheard about the note and figured out there was something valuable inside the doll. But he didn't know which doll to look for, so he just grabbed the nearest ones he could find: Julie's and Ivy's, in the unlocked apartment above the restaurant. Later he'd overheard about the meeting with Mei, and slipped into her house through an unlocked window. He even accidentally confesses ("But I locked the door!" "Well, not the window--oops."). So...mystery solved!

There's also a subplot about Julie and Tracy having to share a room because a friend of their mother's will be staying with them for a month or two after she moves to San Francisco. The friend shows up in the last couple pages of the book, after Julie's been internally annoyed at having her life disrupted again but then grown to accept and even be excited about welcoming someone to a new place.

Looking Back

The historical section is similar to the one in Good Luck, Ivy!, talking about Chinese immigrants to California, but goes more in the racism they experienced. For example, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 allowed only upper-class people to immigrate from China to the United States. It wasn't repealed until the 1940s, and 1965 finally saw legislation that explicitly stated anyone from China was welcome. Some children of poorer Chinese families would pose as members of families allowed to immigrate, memorizing various facts about their supposed upbringing in anticipation of drawn-out questioning. Those who could immigrate from China came to California through Angel Island, where they might be held for weeks with officials combing over their paperwork and stories, looking for inconsistencies that would cause them to be deported back to China. While waiting, some would pass the time carving poetry into the walls of the barracks, which were discovered when Angel Island became a state park in the 1970s. More than two hundred poignant verses were preserved, and visitors to the island can see them today as they learn about the history of the place.


This book is dedicated to "Anna-Kristina Moseidjord, a very good writer and a very special friend--with love."

Tracy's "translation" of the Chinese letter as trite fortune-cookie sayings seems sort of racist for someone whose sister's best friend is of Chinese descent.

Having a guest stay for an undetermined length of time...ugh. I hate not knowing how long company will be staying. Stay for a month, fine. JUST TELL ME IT WILL BE A MONTH SO I KNOW AHEAD OF TIME.

Julie sleeps with her doll in her bed every night. Although when Ivy gave it to Julie, the doll came with a name; here it says Julie picked out the name.


Card Catalog said...

"can I brag about figuring that out about a hundred pages before Julie and Ivy, even though this book is meant for eight- and nine-year-olds and I'll be thirty in November?"

Of course you can!

And yes, I totally agree about visitors. I need to be able to plan!

Angel Island sounds really interesting.

SJSiff said...

I wish I'd known about Angel Island when I was in San Francisco so I could have tried to visit. I knew that Chinese immigrants were mistreated, but I had no idea about the extent!

Isabel Escalante said...

The name of Julie's mom's store, 'Gladrags'... it reminds me of the song by the Four Seasons that says "I'd change her sad rags into glad rags if I could..." at first I thought it was named for that song, but later I learned that it was named for some other song that I can't remember the title of now, but that has the word gladrags in the title.

SJSiff said...

Meet Julie says it's from the Rod Stewart song "The Handbags and the Gladrags." Her sister Tracy came up with the idea.