“Reading Pagoda Dreamer, a splendid book, I felt taken by the hand into a woman’s consciousness, revealed here in compelling, intimate letters. Davis’s mother, Dorothy, corresponded throughout her life with her sister, Louise, and what unfolds for us—through the letters—is an account of Dorothy’s adventures, her suffering and passions, very like an absorbing novel.

This biography is so lively and entertaining I found it hard to put down. Davis’ skillful choices of excerpts offer glimpses into the uncensored soul of her mother. She lets the real woman emerge truthfully without editorial comment or excuses while still recounting what it was like to be parented by Dorothy—the joys and hardships. I appreciated Davis’s restraint, her non-judgmental approach, and her dispassionate tone of voice, keeping herself appropriately in the background.

Dreamer gave me a feeling for the times, too, a sense of life in 1898 China through 1967 America.

Davis recreates the look of places and the details: from flowers, jewelry, nurses’ uniforms, cigarettes, to popular songs. Her mother’s letters are full of the observations of an artist with strong progressive opinions and truthful self analysis. She reveals herself to be a loving, selfish, brilliant, forthcoming person, and Davis’ choice to expose all sides of her mother is satisfying. I felt trusted as a reader to step into the very consciousness of a woman born into a culture that both constrained her and allowed her to flourish.

The beginning of the book takes place in China before the Revolution and reminded me of Pearl Buck’s My Several Worlds, but Dreamer is much more personally revealing and fun to read. In fact, Pagoda Dreamer surpasses many biographies I’ve read that linger too long over factual material. Lily Koppel’s The Red Leather Diary is similar to Dreamer. It is about another woman of this flapper era—whose personal writings were found in a dumpster—but Davis’s mother is a more interesting character, one who lingers in our thoughts as a striking original. I was touched to the point of tears at the end.”

Elaine Greensmith Jordan, M.A., M.Div.
Writing Specialist, Educator, Minister


“In November 2009, selections from the 1925 honeymoon albums of Benjamin and Dorothy March were featured in an exhibition in the city of Hangzhou.  The photographs and diary entries had a sensational reception, with over 60,000 visitors to the gallery in 11 days.  Citizens of Hangzhou were not only eager to see their famous city as it was 85 years previous, but were entranced by the poignant experiences of this engaging couple, so clearly in love.  The lyrical quality of Benjamin’s diaries conveyed such infectious optimism as the newlyweds encountered the scenic wonders of East Lake.  After I gave a presentation on Benjamin March’s brief but significant professional career, a recurring question from the Chinese audiences was, “What happened to Dorothy after Benjamin died?”  Sadly, I had no answer, as the Benjamin March papers in our Archives end abruptly with his death in 1934.  With the publication of this extraordinary biography, we now know what happened to Dorothy. 

Most biographical treatments by sons or daughters must be accepted for what they are, a fond and sentimental remembrance. Pagoda Dreamer, by contrast, was exceedingly readable and thoroughly complex in scope.  It is an absorbing tale of a bright, independent woman whose upbringing in China both contrasted to and informed her response to a later life of tragedies and hardship.  Dorothy is revealed not as the demure and loyal wife of a talented scholar as I had expected, but as an independent and headstrong woman of considerable literary talent, accomplishments and ambition.   Dorothy is not a heroic figure; her unwillingness to accept society’s expectations led to public scandal, and her unfulfilled yearning for a carefree life of exotic travel only prevented her from fully enjoying the few pleasures that her life provided. 

Nevertheless, it becomes clear to the reader that growing up in China gave Dorothy the emotional fortitude to resist despair after repeated loss and cruel disappointment.   I found this life story a compelling exploration of how childhood experiences - in often convoluted ways - mark the adult character.”  

David Hogge, Archivist
Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Smithsonian Institution


“In 1986, after the death of her mother’s only sister, Judith March Davis discovered a wealth of letters from her mother, Dorothy Rowe, in a box under her aunt’s bed. It took Davis over ten years to open and examine this treasure, which charted the journey of Dorothy Rowe from 1920 to 1967, near the end of her life. 

From these letters and other sources, Davis has woven a compelling story of her mother’s birth and first years in China as the daughter of missionaries, her life in America, the tragic deaths of Judith’s father, famed Asian art historian Ben March, and of Dorothy’s second husband, Don Goss, the rearing of her daughter, and her work at the University of Michigan.. “Doré,” as Dorothy was called, endured bouts of tuberculosis and diabetes, and yet she managed always to accept the travails of life with a kind of Asian fatalism and reference to a faux deity that she called “Kind-Dirty.” 

A keen example of Dore’s pluck is her christening of her damaged right arm as “Lucy the Idiot Child.” During one of her numerous surgeries to remove ribs as a cure for TB, the nerves in Dore’s armpit were crushed and her arm paralyzed. Instead of allowing the pain and frustration to defeat her, Dore managed eventually to train “Lucy” and personified her fits of temper, thus imbuing the horrific condition with humor.

One of the most powerful aspects of Pagoda Dreamer is Davis’ willingness to share her mother Dore’s view of her daughter throughout the years.  How many of us would cherish a glimpse into our mother’s mind as she raised us to adulthood and treasure evidence of our mother’s concern about the world in which her child is growing up!  As World War II rages, Dore writes of her unease for Judy’s future: “It isn’t a pretty world we have to hand over.  She and her children will be paying forever for this war, and our mistakes of omission and commission.”  Within the same letter she tells of how she values her child: “Having Judy makes it easier to grow old.  It gives life a sequence that makes it possible to look ahead, even to the terrible loneliness of no [father] in her life or mine.”

Pagoda Dreamer is a compelling story of a woman’s ongoing courage in the face of loss. Interlacing the most important gems from her mother’s letters, Davis renders Dorothy Rowe’s life, including her own part in it, with sufficient detachment that we may see the multiple facets, the darkness and the light, in this remarkable woman.” 

Nancy Owen Nelson, PhD., Writing Consultant and author of Private Voices, Public Lives: Women Speak on the Literary Life (University of North Texas Press 1995)


Pagoda Dreamer is the biography of Dorothy Rowe (Doré), an exceptional girl/lady in a frequently frustrated search for adventure. Although I know Judith March Davis, and my wife raved about her book, I assumed that it was a woman’s book about women (not my first choice in literature), and I undertook the reading with limited enthusiasm. To my surprise, Pagoda Dreamer hooked me.

Doré, the author’s mother, was an interesting person living an interesting life.  It’s amazing how the author recreates a life out of letters, revealing her mother’s thoughts, feelings and experiences in such a compelling manner that I was continually looking forward to “what- happens- next.” Would I have so enjoyed this book had I not known the author? There’s no way to know. It’s a well-written story about fascinating people during an exciting and stressful era in America’s history. I suspect that there’s a little of Doré in all of us.”

Cal Nigh, MSW, ACSW
retired psychotherapist


“Dorothy (Doré) Rowe March was a remarkable woman, and what a life she lived! In spite of a childhood in the home of missionary parents, she had the makings of a break-through feminist.  Her youth in China, where she spoke Chinese with her friends in Nanking and admired Chinese culture and natural beauty, introduced independent thinking.  While attending Goucher College in Baltimore, she had additional opportunities to think and make decisions on her own. Back home in China, she taught school and began writing poetry and stories. 

Marriage to Benjamin F. March brought her again to America, where she assumed household responsibilities and the care of their daughter Judy.  As Curator of Asiatic Art at the Detroit Institute of Art and later curator and lecturer at the University of Michigan, Ben was devoted to his work.  During his absences while speaking at distant locations, Doré continued writing and ultimately published four books. 

Her writing talent also appears in letters to her sister Lurry, which became the basis for Davis's biography of her mother. In so many ways Pagoda Dreamer captures Doré’s essence--admiration of beauty, both natural and manmade, a quick mind, determination to overcome obstacles, sense of whimsy, mix of sociability and solitude, and resolve to create the conditions for a successful life for her child.     

In spite of losing two husbands, wrestling over finances to make ends meet, and suffering from multiple illnesses, Doré proceeded to rear her daughter alone, take pride in her career as it developed at the University of Michigan, encourage students and colleagues in their work, fully enjoy summertime leisure, and live life on her own terms.”

Betsy Burr Barnes
Retired high school librarian


“A biography told by the daughter of poet and writer Dorothy Rowe in the author’s and her mother’s own words. Letters written by Dorothy Rowe, a woman so enthralled with China and its history from an early age, helped the reader get to know and understand the history of that nation. Living in China and then becoming educated in America her daughter tells an inspiring story of a woman who looked at life with a much different perspective than we would. Understanding and living her life in an Asian country, she learned to understand and embrace the culture and soon became assimilated within it and its culture.

The author painted a picture of China so vividly that you can see the many places that Dorothy visited and lived in. She published her poetry in magazines and was fortunate that McMillan published her four books for children. Each of her letters was so honest and truthful. Reading each one enabled the reader to get to know and understand the writer and her mother’s amazing story.

When her life would settle into mundane routines she became restless and longed for a vacation, shopping spree or a change. Trying to reconcile her differences with her husband and learning to be a parent caused many conflicts for Dorothy within herself.  Dorothy’s emotions and reactions to situations often set the stage for major changes in her life. Moving to different places throughout her marriage she became disconnected from her friends and family except for her sister Lurry. She was able to confide in her sister and they often spent time together in New York and other places in order for Dorothy to regroup and be able to handle her life when she returned.

Benjamin March, her husband, was an expert on Asian Art. He joined the staff of the University of Michigan and once again she moved to another home. This time she moved to Ann Arbor and after his death she joined the staff of the same University in their History of Art Department

A terrible bout with TB and learning that she had diabetes were major setbacks in her life causing her to remain in the hospital and rehabilitation for a very long time. She missed out on much of her daughter’s life. When she became ill and could no longer work she channeled her energies into helping those who were in the same ward with her and encouraged them with her courage, lack of defeat and sense of humor.

Dorothy Rowe March was a person that seemed unfulfilled throughout most of her life. She seemed to long for more and got bored easily with her life and her family responsibilities.

With many more tragedies to withstand and a daughter that endured many of her own, Dorothy’s life was not easy and many adjustments had to be made in order to accommodate the needs of others.

Although Dorothy tried her best to take care of her daughter and make her happy she often became annoyed, disgruntled and gave her the old silent treatment when things did not go her way. She even went as far as trying to make her daughter feel guilty for the hard work she put into making her meals and taking care of her, making herself out to be a martyr when Judith was recovering from her illness.

All of her life Doré needed the approval and acceptance of others and wanted to feel vital at home and in her jobs. Any person that feels that they have outlived their purpose in life often becomes depressed and might do things that would cause themselves harm as she did with her drinking. Doré felt unappreciated, not needed and alone in her later years. Retirement made her feel useless and although she could have reconnected with some of her students or college friends, she did not.

Dorothy Rowe left the world a great legacy in her books, poetry, and her articles. But, the best tribute to a parent and legacy is one that Judith March Davis has written and the special toast she made to her mother when she went and fulfilled her dream of going to China. I would love to read her children’s books and it was an honor to review this book.”

Fran Lewis, Reviewer for Bookpleasures.com


“I gobbled up Pagoda Dreamer. What a delicious story. I felt immersed in the life of Dorothy Rowe, and, at times, the author’s. It was refreshing to be in another time. I appreciate how Judith Davis allows her mother tell her story with a few well-chosen insights into her own experience of the same situations. She is a terrific writer.

The quotes at the beginning of every chapter were incredible – grounding and expanding the themes of the book: the past, living in China, cherishing China, mothers and daughters, sorrow and tragedy, living and dying. The ending was masterful and brought tears to my eyes. What a gift this book is to the world!”

The Rev. Linda Goonewardene
Community Minister and Counselor to drug addicted youth.


“It is hard to tease out how much one’s interest is enhanced by knowing Judith March Davis, but I thought Pagoda Dreamer was absolutely wonderful! My first reaction is: How very rich life is! Reading about her mother’s life and thinking about what the author’s own growing up must have been like, somehow enriches my life. It’s like ‘voices’ continually joining an orchestra, adding more and more depth and richness as they combine.

I am struck by how well Judy kept the voices straight. Doré’s voice, especially in her youth, is vibrant, full of slang, self-confidence, fun.  Her indomitable spirit comes through. I can see where Judy’s comes from. Her voice in the book is appropriately authorial and reserved. There was never any confusion about whose point of view was being expressed. That must have been pretty tricky to do.

I loved the way the story ended. A reader just knows that Doré would have loved having a book written about her, and especially by her beloved Judy-Pooh.”

Bonnie Forte
Retired laboratory chemist and avid reader.