Dragons of Silk follows generations of Chinese and Chinese American women who grow, spin, weave, and design silk. The first generation consists of two sisters, 10-year-old Lily and 16-year-old Swallow, and their mother who grow silk the old-fashioned way. They gather mulberry leaves to feed their silkworms, and each time the worms are grown, six or seven times a year, they set several aside to birth the next generation, smoke the rest out, and use steam to tease apart the cocoon layers into silk thread which they wind onto spools. This allows them a meager living in their village. When Lily and Swallow's irresponsible father returns, however, it spells disaster for them. It is culturally unacceptable to turn him out, yet they know he will squander their money. This he does while trying to prove himself, not understanding that his family does not have the capital to back up his wonderful ideas. Angry at himself and his situation, he leaves his family without money to pay the next year's rent. Swallow, the practical elder sister, sells herself into slavery to save them.
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Lily grows up to be a stern, stubborn, kind, and protective old woman. Her granddaughter is nicknamed Little Swallow in honor of Lily's sister. Little Swallow works in a nearby silk factory. It earns her good money, but nearby silk weavers feel threatened by it. When they come raid the factory, the village gathers help to ward them off. They are successful; yet Lily worries for her granddaughter's future in China. When one of the men who came to help expresses an interest in her, she encourages Little Swallow to go with him to the Land of the Golden Mountain - America.
Little Swallow's granddaughter grows up in San Francisco's Chinatown around the time of the great depression. She loves to play the violin, but when her family finds themselves in a difficult financial situation, she knows what she is expected to do. She gives up her violin - which is sold without asking her opinion in any case - and she learns the family trade in silk. Through silk, she is able to help her family survive.
Her daughter grows up knowing of her mother's distaste for listening to classical music on the radio, but without knowing why. She does know, however, that she loves the silk with which her mother works. She pays attention to the type of silk, the colors, and how to put it together. She dreams of being a fashion designer. Her mother thinks this just some silly girl's dream, but then thinks back to her own youth, and back to the original Swallow who sacrificed herself for her family. She thinks, how long must we give up our dreams for others? With her help and connections, she is able to ascertain her daughter's prospects as a fashion designer and acquires her daughter an opportunity to work for a high-end designer.
Her daughter is successful - very successful - and becomes a leader in the field of fashion. At one of her talks, the fashion designer daughter meets a distant cousin who is a descendant of Swallow. They exchange stories, and the implication is that they will speak again in the future. Throughout the book are references to the Chinese legend of the Weaving Maid, which is also explained and which adds significantly to the story.
Best part of story, including ending:
Each time one of the women must sacrifice herself for her family, Yep writes it in such as way that the reader pities that woman and understands her pain. At the end, the reader is truly happy for the fashion designer and for the meeting of the two sisters, which ties up loose ends (ie, Swallow's fate) from the beginning.
Best scene in story:
It was fascinating at the beginning to read about how silk was processed before there were factories to do that work.
Opinion about the main character:
Each woman, starting with Swallow, is strong and caring with a strong desire to see their family well off, and shows the next in line, whether it be sister, daughter, or granddaughter, how to be the same way.