When Moon Shadow leaves his mother in China to come live in the United States with his previously unknown father, he learns to love and respect his father and also learns about his father's dream: learning to fly. Moon Shadow makes the decision himself to go to the United States. A cousin who lives with father, Hand Clap, comes to take him back, and his mother doesn't want him to go. But he says he wants to go, and so he does. He soon discovers that Hand Clap exaggerates about many things - except advice for easily passing through customs. But the Land of the Golden Mountain (San Francisco) is not everything Hand Clap describes it to be. Fortunately, Moon Shadow's father is kind, cares about him, and tries to give him a good home with what is collectively known as the Company. The Company runs a laundry shop in Chinatown, and consists of Father (also known as Windrider), Hand Clap, White Deer (a Buddhist, vegetarian, and excellent cook of all things vegetarian, carnivorous, and omnivorous), Black Dog (a cousin with dangerous addictions and a difficult time staying out of trouble), and Uncle (who heads the Company). Father also explains the source of his new name. Due to a dream, he believes he is a reincarnated dragon doctor, and believes he must prove himself in this life to reincarnate back into his true form. He also has a dream that is linked with his previous life: He wants to fly. With the gift he has for mechanics, he believes he just might do it.
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Moon Shadow becomes accustomed to his life in Chinatown, but then Black Dog both causes and gets into trouble. He tries to steal money from Moon Shadow and nearly gets killed by a local gang. Father, followed in secret by Moon Shadow, must rescue him and kills a man. As a result, Father and Moon Shadow move to a white (or "demon") section of town. (They call the whites "demons.") It's hard to find a place to live, but father finds a place with a kind and open-minded "demoness" named Miss Whitlaw. Moon Shadow becomes friends with her niece, Robin, and by talking with the two of them and borrowing Robin's books, learns English. Father also demonstrates his acquired understanding of "demon" culture and his ability to bridge them to help Miss Whitlaw, Robin, and Moon Shadow understand each other. Moon Shadow, for example, thinks it strange that dragons in Miss Whitlaw's stories are always bad; Miss Whitlaw understands better the picture of a Stove King when it is described as a "Chinese Saint of the Kitchen." He is also insistent that Moon Shadow be polite to Miss Whitlaw and Robin. Father meanwhile finds work as a mechanic and works on his flying machine. While they are at Miss Whitlaw's, Moon Shadow writes the Wright Brothers in English, with Robin and Miss Whitlaw's help. When Father realizes what his son has done, he is at first embarrassed, but subsequently proud of his son and glad to have the information. This brings him closer to his goal.
In 1905, the big earthquake strikes San Francisco. The unusual shape of Miss Whitlaw's house keeps it from falling down and crushing or trapping them, but others are not so fortunate. Most people on the streets protect themselves and run towards safety, taking little head of others close to them, but Miss Whitlaw and Father demonstrate their common values by insisting that everyone they can muster help to free those people who are still alive but trapped in their houses. Many people subsequently head towards Golden Gate Park to camp. Father and Moon Shadow find the Company there, and it is clear they still all care about each other and want to help each other, despite their limited contact since Father and Moon Shadow moved. When a fire breaks out south of Market and begins to spread, Miss Whitlaw takes her belongings out of her house and locks the house, which later burns.
In the aftermath of the earthquake, Moon Shadow and Father move to Oakland, where Moon Shadow attends school and does his chores, and father works - both for money and on his machine. They have been sending money and letters back to China all this time for Mother, and continue to do so. So much of their remaining money goes into the machine that they have difficulty making ends meet. Just as father finishes his machine, disaster strikes again and Father is unable to pay rent. With help from the Company, however, he is able to get the machine out and fly it, with Moon Shadow, the Company, and the Whitlaws looking on. He hurts himself upon landing, but will be all right. His dream accomplished, they return to San Francisco, where Uncle has made Father an official partner in the Company - something Father could not have afforded on his own with all the resources he put into his flying machine. As a partner in the Company, Father is happily able to turn his attention to his next goal: bringing his wife to the United States.
Best part of story, including ending:
Yep tries to phrase things in such a way that the reader sees and understands things through early 20th century Chinese immigrant eyes. The reader learns a lot about how things were and how Chinese Americans lived at that time, and about the challenges they faced.
Best scene in story:
When Father, Moon Shadow, the Company, and the Whitlaws are in Golden Gate Park after the earthquake, prejudice of most people becomes apparent. Miss Whitlaw is considered to be pretty cool - for a "demoness." She also defends Moon Shadow and Father when a policeman tells them they can't be in the white section of the encampment, though Father and Moon Shadow go to camp with the Company anyway. They know that because they are Chinese, most white people (besides Miss Whitlaw) won't accept them in that area. It cannot be "fixed," at least not there and then, and he knows that words of explanation are futile.
Opinion about the main character:
As he grows from ages 8 to 14, Moon Shadow learns to respect and love his father, and to be a good, respectful, and open person, but also maintains his own individuality.