Soldier Doll by Jennifer Gold
Canadian lawyer/author Jennifer Gold’s debut novel starts with such promise: a contemporary teenager’s discovery of the eponymous “soldier doll” is interwoven with the doll’s near-century-long journey from Europe to the U.S. to Vietnam, landing in a garage sale in Toronto to be bargained for a mere $1.75. Sounds intriguing, no?
While exploring a garage sale in her new neighborhood, 15-year-old Elizabeth buys a handmade baby doll painted with a soldier’s uniform as a birthday gift for her amateur collector father. He’s scheduled to serve a year in Afghanistan, shipping out sooner than later. When Elizabeth happens on a used book store, the friendly employee, Evan, serendipitously mentions a “Soldier Doll” poem by an author both teens admire.
Time shifts nine decades back, across the Pond to Devon, England, to the young woman for whom the doll was originally made – a gift from her father to comfort her after her mother’s death. She paints a soldier’s uniform onto the doll and presents it to her fiancé who has just enlisted in the first world war. The tragic news of his death inspires her to write “The Soldier Doll” … and the rest, as they say …
While Elizabeth’s new-girl-in-town story unfolds, alternating chapters follow the doll to Germany with a decorated World War I soldier who lands in a concentration camp after Kristallnacht on the eve of World War II. He passes it next to a little girl who performs in the eerie musical Brundibar while imprisoned in Terezin, who survives to donate the doll to an orphanage in what was Czechoslovakia. The doll continues to criss-cross the world with various owners, storing its silent history.
Somewhere about 2/3 through, the narrative falters, dissolving into an unconvincing melodramatic muddle by book’s end. Perhaps it starts with too many stereotypes and inaccuracies in the Asian chapters: American soldiers in Vietnam refer to their one African American compatriot as ‘Miles’ because his last name happens to be ‘Davis’; the Vietnamese immigrant wife annoys her hapa son by being more shadow than equal partner to her white Canadian husband (even as she’s apparently the more substantial breadwinner); pho gets mistaken for spring rolls in a hapa Vietnamese family (Google anyone?). In comparison to the better-researched European sections, the Asian chapters fall carelessly short.
Perhaps all is fair in love and war, but disappointingly, equitable representation on the page seems to be little more than wishful thinking.
Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult