Wednesday, March 23, 2016
Paper Wishes, wirtten by Lois Sephahban. Farrar Straus Giroux, Macmillan. Raincoast, 2016. $19.50 ages 9 and up
Manami and her grandfather love to walk along the shores of Bainbridge Island in the mornings before she goes to school. They love the sand, the saltwater, the sound of the ocean. Grandfather's dog Yujiin accompanies them as they explore.
The two take note of the warships and soldiers nearby, and Grandfather tries to explain that the soldiers are as fearful as the islanders. Since the bombing at Pearl Harbor they are not sure that the Japanese can be trusted. There is talk at school and many rumors about why they are there. Still, Manami is surprised when her teacher tells Manami and her Japanese American friends that they will no longer be attending school.
When she arrives home with questions about these recent events, her parents try to protect her from the inevitable. All people of Japanese descent will be gathered together and forced to move to a 'prisoner-camp'. The family knows little about their destination. Grandfather arranges for a friend to care for Yujiin. Manami cannot face leaving him behind, so she hides him in her coat. When the dog is discovered, he is taken away and the family is left to wonder what might happen to him. It breaks her heart. Her guilt renders her mute. Their arrival at the camp only makes it worse - fear of life there and the endless dust clog her already wordless throat.
As the family tries to make a home in their single room in one of the barracks, Manami continues to worry about what she has done. Her parents find work to keep them busy and make the days easier to bear, her brother Ron returns from college to join the family and teach in the camp. She and her friend Kimmi are in the same class at school with Miss Rosalie. Her teacher gives her paper and pencils to use at home. Using this gift, she sends 'paper wishes' to Yujiin, in hopes that he might find the family again.
Using Manami's first person voice to tell this powerful story is exactly the right choice - the young girl is able to bring focus to the painful impact that government wartime policies had on innocent Japanese American families. The author's sensitive depiction of the suffering, injustice and fear through Manami's eyes is also hopeful at times - when her mother's garden grows despite the harsh conditions, in quiet moments between Manami and her grandfather, and when she finally finds her voice again.
It is a powerful debut novel. An author's note provides additional information on early Japanese immigrant history and the internment camps that detained them during the war. The pain of their interment is still deeply felt for themselves and their descendants. This is an important story to tell, and it is told eloquently.