Friday, April 4, 2014
dust of eden, written by Mariko Nagai. Albert Whitman and Company, Thomas Allen & Son. 2014. $18.99 ages 11 and up
and everyone became quiet. People
outside. People inside. All of us quiet...
We were all sad, but put on smiling faces, like we did not care, like our hearts were not breaking, though if you listened hard, if you ignored the engines, you could hear thousands of hearts breaking, shattering, into pieces."
How on earth would a 13 year old girl begin to understand the thinking behind the internment of Japanese Americans following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1942?
In clear verse Mariko Nagai helps her readers experience the confusion, the terror, the utter sadness that engulfs Mina Masako Tagawa and her family. She goes from being a middle-school girl singing Christmas carols one day, to having her father imprisoned for a year with no contact, to first one camp in Washington and finally, to Idaho where the family (mother, brother and grandfather) endures spending their days under the watchful eyes of camp guards - all because of her Japanese heritage, and a unrealistic fear that all people of Japanese descent were enemy spies following the unprovoked attack in Hawaii.
It is a piece of history that cannot be erased, despite public apologies to those who were so poorly treated and unjustly detained. Stories such as these should be heard. Hearing it through the eyes of a young, confused girl makes it seem more real for its intended audience. Mina misses her father, her best friend Jamie, her home and all that was once familiar. She is shocked by the conditions that they must endure, and by the constant fear of what might yet happen to them. She is virtually immobilized by the uncertainty of it all.
Mina tells of the less than adequate living conditions in both camps. The food is unfamiliar, and often repetitive. The lines are long. Injustice is at every turn. Her grandfather has little to hold his interest, or to encourage a will to live. Her mother works long hours in the camp kitchen, often falling into bed as soon a she returns from her work day. Her brother Nick is full of anger and resentment at what has been done. As a final injustice, the American government asks young Japanese men who are there to join the service and fight for 'their' country - the very country that has imprisoned them!
Letters from Mina to Jamie and back again let her know that their home is being cared for, about school in Seattle and evoke a yearning for the friends to be together once more. Mina writes to Nick following his enlistment and receives news back from him concerning the war effort and his part in it.
One of her saddest lines for me is:
"We held our breath for three
years. We did not have anything to call
our own …”
What they did have was isolation, stress, lengthy separation, loss. Father does come back to them, a changed man. Grandfather dies while in the camp. Nick finds his place in Japan following the war, and writes a letter to his family that is the epilogue to this compelling tale:
"It's strange to be here;
everywhere, I see people
who look like me,
who look like Dad and Mom,
but to them, I am American.
Maybe it's the way I walk,
maybe it's my bad Japanese,
maybe it's my uniform,
but I don't look Japanese to them,
and I don't feel
Japanese. I know, more
than ever, I'm just an American,
pure and simple."
A historical note is added.