In 1927, fifty-eight delicately-built and life-sized dolls were sent from Japan to the United States as "friendship ambassadors" to reciprocate an earlier gift from the US to Japan, and to facilitate greater cultural understanding between the two countries. In this novel, Kirby imagines how one of those dolls might have changed the lives of four girls over the years. The doll (Miss Kanagawa) comes to life at optimum moments to affect the children and guide them towards making correct life decisions.
It could be a bit creepy to imagine an animate doll (and the idea isn't entirely original), but the question of the doll's consciousness is kept vague and isn't terribly crucial to the story. Instead, we can almost imagine that each of the doll's young interlopers reached their epiphany on their own. The result is that Miss Kanagawa becomes a conduit for telling this more general story about friendship and loyalty (thus, the story reminded me more of violin in The Red Violin than Chuckie in Child's Play II!). Each episode is a moving story and they are surprisingly well-connected to each other. The ending is a bit anti-climactic but doesn't detract from the story.
One of the real strengths of this book is the strong basis of the story in historical fact. The settings are familiar and well-worn (Dust Bowl refugees, Depression survivors, New York Society figures, etc.) and one could have wished for a wider spread of years (why not put a story in the 50s or 60s?), but Larson does well with what she picks to cover and the stories will entice young readers to learn more. The historical notes at the end are particularly well-written and noteworthy.