For those of us who tend to think mainly of Nazis and Soviets when we think of countries in WWII who persecuted their own citizens, McMorris reminds us of what the Americans did to those of Japanese descent in her lovely and bittersweet novel based on the lives of several real people.
The novel begins in November, 1941, with 19-year-old Maddie Kern having a secret relationship with Lane Moritomo. At first, Maddie hid her love for Lane not because he was Japanese, but because Lane was the best friend of her very protective older brother TJ. But after Pearl Harbor, everything changed. Not only were all Japanese looked at with loathing, but any Caucasian who associated with someone of Japanese descent was ostracized as well. Maddie didn’t care; she loved Lane. But TJ saw things differently. He had always felt betrayed by his father, who was driving drunk when his mother got killed in a car accident, and now he felt betrayed by his “brother,” Lane, whom he called “a dirty yellow Jap.”
Angry and alienated, TJ enlisted as the war picked up steam. Lane and his family were evacuated to the Manzanar Internment Camp in the Sierra Nevada. Maddie claimed she was pregnant with a mixed-race child and joined Lane at Manzanar.
Some of you might recall that in 1942 Roosevelt signed an Executive Order mandating that approximately 110,000 people of Japanese descent living in the US be removed from their homes and placed in internment camps. The US justified its’ action by claiming that there was a danger of those of Japanese descent spying for the Japanese. However more than two thirds of those interned were American citizens and half of them were children. None had ever shown evidence of disloyalty. It only took one-sixteenth of a drop of Japanese blood for exclusion!
At the camp, Maddie, like the others, endured sub-standard living conditions with communal latrines and a total lack of privacy. Prisoners had to work at either maintaining the camp or helping with the war effort (even though they were supposedly disloyal) earning between $8 and $19 a month (in 2012 dollars that is between $114 and $270 a month).
As American casualties rose, the Army went around to the camps to recruit Japanese to serve in intelligence as translators, and Lane volunteered. He desperately wanted to show his loyalty. Now both the men Maddie loved were serving in the war, and Maddie was pregnant for real.
Would any of them make it out? Would they reconcile? Could the wounds of prejudice and racism ever be healed?
Discussion: The author was inspired to write this book after hearing from a friend that he had fought for America in World War II but his brother fought for Japan. While investigating the possibilities of this premise, she found out that some 200 non-Japanese people had gone voluntarily to the internment camps in order to be with their spouses. She wanted to tell their stories also. She did a great deal of interviews and other research, which she documents in a “Note” at the end of the story. Additionally, she took care to be balanced in reporting atrocities committed by both sides, observing that a great deal of fear and prejudice was generated by the rampant rumors and propaganda by all parties.
Evaluation: This is a touching story that will not only educate you, but win you over with its endearing and brave characters, and its heartbreaking recounting of actual events.
The author, herself half Japanese, even includes recipes in the back that reflect a combination of Asian and Western influence!
Published by Kensington Books, 2012