- Jade Dragon
"I don't think of myself as an adventurous person, although I enjoy foreign travel and meeting people of other cultures. I might have turned down this adventure if I could [End Page 97] have seen the future, but maybe not. There were pluses and minuses" (Nelson p. 7).
Here are some words of advice for those who believe that "archaeology" and "story" should never appear in the same sentence: Turn the page now. Jade Dragon is the second of Sarah Nelson's archaeological suspense novels and continues the exploits of a Korean-American archaeologist whom we first met in Nelson's haunting first novel, Spirit Bird Journey.
The book's two parallel story lines are narrated in the first person and take place in contemporary China and in that country's ancient past. The modern protagonist, archaeologist Clara Alden, is visiting a site dubbed the Goddess Temple and must contend with local scholars and looters. Her spirit, meanwhile, travels deep into the past and, in the form of a bird, observes and guides a group of tribal people. (It's tough to review a novel without giving away too much!) Chapters of varying length hop between past and present, a style that advances the action rapidly and maintains the reader's interest.
Jade Dragon is about jade and the importance of that mysterious stone in both modern and ancient China. Plundering archaeological remains for valuable pieces is big business in China, in spite of the possibility of a death sentence for the perpetrator. As the people of the ancient past come alive through Nelson's novel, the contemporary looters crime becomes even more heinous. By destroying the archaeological contexts in which these precious objects have come to us, these scavengers extinguish past lives. I cannot help thinking that Nelson's occasional digs at art historians may have been influenced by the fact that their profession is rooted in the same fixation with material things that fueled the frenzy of pillaging that destroyed so many archaeological sites in advance of construction of the Three Gorges Dam.
Sarah Nelson is not the first archaeologist to have realized that some of our insights simply cannot be expressed through conventional scholarly presentations. George Gaylord Simpson's posthumously published The Dechronization of Sam Magruder (London: St. Martins Griffin, 1997) is an early example, while Janet Spector's What This Awl Means (Minneapolis: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1993) is required reading in many universities and a welcome break from the usual bland undergraduate fare. The late James Deetz went even further, writing in the journal Historical Archaeology that "Simply put, archaeologists are storytellers" (Vol. 34 : 94, 1998), for hermeneutic understanding is a dialog of sorts between data and contexts, both archaeological and historical. Like Simpson, Spector, and Deetz, Nelson is no dabbler. A faculty member at the University of Denver, she has written a dozen books on archaeology, including The Archaeology of Northeast China (ed., London: Routledge, 1995) and The Archaeology of Korea (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993). Nelson is also an experienced traveler in China and offers glimpses into the practice of archaeology, as well as the realities of life: Readers who have unanswered questions about the state of Chinese public toilets will want to order this book.
While Jade Dragon is a good read—and parts are extraordinarily rich in both emotion and ethnographic detail—it's not without fault. The author is at her strongest when she is evoking time and place; the flip side is some unnaturally stiff dialog that would fit more easily in a lecture hall than a real conversation. And perhaps it's the field archaeologist in me that felt a great yearning for a map with which to track the characters' journeys, for they're always on the move. The publisher, RKLOG Press (spell out the letters), is guilty of occasional lapses in production values such as changes in the font and instances of blank half lines.
Parts of Jade Dragon are almost ethnographic in their detail. One can sense...