Minnesotan Dragons in Mindy Mejia’s The Dragon Keeper

Inge Lamboo

Dragon KeeperMindy Mejia’s The Dragon Keeper is a layered and complex story about Meg Yancy, a Minnesotan zookeeper who is the primary caregiver of a Komodo dragon called Jata. Meg is a dedicated and loyal keeper, throwing herself into her work partly because she understands animals better than the people in her life–amongst them are her estranged father, her boyfriend, and the zoo's veterinarian. Even still, Meg is forced to deal with people and more once she discovers Jata has produced viable eggs without ever having a mate. She fights to protect her beloved dragon from the consequences of its own miracle, protecting its hatchlings from religious, scientific, and media forces once the dragon and zoo are bombarded with people claiming the miracle as their own.

In the early stages of this novel, I feared it was heading in the direction of predictability and perhaps even cliché. Some of the novel’s subplots – such as Meg’s interactions with the zoo’s overly ambitious and womanizing veterinarian–seemed to be heading in obvious directions. However, Mejia continued to add layer upon layer to the story, complicating the characters and storylines endlessly–without becoming too confusing–and consequently I was kept on my toes throughout the novel.

Mejia’s main character, Meg Yancy, is a well-rounded and interesting character. Mejia avoids the traps of having a zookeeper who is “not a people-person” by making Meg wonderfully complicated. She is antisocial, grouchy at times, and sometimes gets herself into trouble by snapping at people; but she is also loyal, brave, extremely principled, and her quick wit is good for a few laughs. Meg is not entirely likeable, which is great, because the goal shouldn’t be likeability. I didn’t always agree with Meg or the choices she made throughout the story. However, because Meg is complex, engrossing, and a believable character, she earns readers' support.

The Dragon Keeper raises good questions concerning zoos, without ever presuming to know–or preach–the answers. No matter how big the cage or fancy the enclosure, the zoo animals clearly pay the price of captivity. A powerful lioness is injured by broken glass when a bottle is thrown by a zoo visitor. Housed in a specially designed building with captivating views of the river valley below, the birds kill themselves trying to reach it by flying at the windows. While that last metaphor was perhaps too crafted and overdone, The Dragon Keeper speaks to the themes of freedom, independence, wildness versus captivity, and "taming" the wild:


The men baited [the dragons] with bleeding goats, trapped them, made the local villagers bind their jaws and legs, and measured them to make sure they were the longest, most impressive specimens to send back to the Western zoos. They loaded the dragons in wooden cages onto their ships, then kicked back in their cabins, sipping whiskey, polishing their guns – totally oblivious to what happened next.

The dragons broke free.

They smashed their cages to boards and splinters, ran past the shocked crew up the stairs to the main deck, and jumped, leaping overboard with a splash that must have sounded like “No fucking thank you,” and dove through the dark waters to swim home.


Meg is oftentimes too forgiving of the zoo's treatment of wild animals; however, Mejia eloquently addresses a zoo's struggles between protecting and its desires to entertain.

What I liked most about The Dragon Keeper was its ambition. In this wonderful debut novel, Mejia captivates her readers with a story in which the fates of an exotic Indonesian dragon and a Minnesotan zookeeper are intertwined. She addresses themes of freedom, independence, wildness versus captivity, and the (im)possibility of any living thing ever being tame. The novel also delicately touches on the issues of “miracles” and nature versus religion. Meg deals with her principles, while also figuring out her complicated romantic entanglements, her relationship with her parents, and her role as a parental figure in Jata's life. A highly ambitious and complicated debut novel, Mindy Mejia pulls off The Dragon Keeper with grace and sophistication.


The Dragon Keeper
By Mindy Mejia
Ashland Creek Press (September 1, 2012)
ISBN-13: 978-1618220134

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