About the Author
When I was 21 and setting out from Tennessee to teach English in Japan, I stopped to see my Aunt Mary in California before I flew across the ocean. Aunt Mary informed me that I was not the first in the family to go to “the Orient.” There was Uncle Ed who had fought off wild dogs while driving a jeep across the Gobi desert . . . and great-grandmother who took the Siberian railway ending up in Moscow only to discover that the First World War had broken out. And then she mentioned her cousin Grace Divine. Grace had the audacity to marry “a Chinaman” and move to China with him, and as far as Aunt Mary knew she’d been killed by the Communists.
At that time China was closed, but the seed to find Grace had been planted in my heart.
Well, as it turned out, Grace found me. A few years later, after Nixon and Mao opened the doors, a letter arrived at the McCallie School in Chattanooga from China. Grace was alive!
Grace and her son William came to the U.S. and I lived with them the last year of Grace’s life. Her two daughters, Nini and Ellen, came to help with their mother’s care. This is how I came to know my remarkable Chinese cousins.
William and I co-authored Grace in China, published by Black Belt Press in 2000, which was later re-published by Soho Press in New York as Grace: An American Woman in China, 1934-74.
When I wanted to share the story with young readers, I had the facts, like an envelope, but I needed a story, like a letter to put inside. I needed to give it life, to flesh it out in ways a young reader would find engaging. To do this, Grace’s first child, Nini, became my protagonist. This impulsive, precocious, restless heroine began to tell the story in her voice and she, being both American and Chinese, sees things that others don’t and is able to save her family because of a friendship she won’t let go.
I found something universal in Nini’s story, the visceral way a child faces big historical events with agency. We have now all experienced a global pandemic. It happened everywhere and greatly affected children’s lives. The pandemic gives young people a way to deeply feel Nini’s story. I hope Dragonfly Dreams will give them a way to talk about their own experiences.
Nini helped me transform a family story into something that gives me meaning and connection to our world-wide family and to history. I hope it will be meaningful to you as well.