Review of “Bridge of Scarlet Leaves” by Kristina McMorris

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!

Children at Manzanar’s voluntary elementary school

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.

Ralph Lazo was of Mexican American and Irish American descent, but when at age 16 he learned that his Japanese American friends and neighbors were being forcibly relocated and imprisoned at Manzanar, he was so incensed that he joined friends on a train that took hundreds to Manzanar in May 1942

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!

Rating: 4/5

Published by Kensington Books, 2012

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23 Responses to Review of “Bridge of Scarlet Leaves” by Kristina McMorris

  1. I had no idea non-Japanese people went to these camps voluntarily to be with their spouses. This sounds like a wonderful book.

  2. No, not the best time in our history. I think we have to try and understand the real fear Americans felt, not that it excuses what happened.

  3. Meg says:

    I read this one earlier in the year and loved it — very haunting, moving and educational. I felt like I emerged from the book with a better understanding and appreciation of the time period, as disturbing as it was.

  4. zibilee says:

    This was a fascinating, and yet scary review. to think that so many ordinary people were locked up and sent into internment camps makes me shudder. This is a book that I should read. It really makes me wonder about our history, and about what we’ve not been told. Very intriguing review today.

  5. You captured the feel of this novel wonderfully — it was so eye-opening — disturbing and shocking. This is why I treasure fiction — books like this introduce us to eras/times we might not want to remember — but through fiction, there’s the space to enter in and learn/remember/honor.

  6. I thought this one was excellent, too. Such a heart-breaking story.

  7. Barbara says:

    I like the idea of this, told from the perspective of a non-Japanese internee.

  8. This one sounds like it would be a very good read! The real inspiration (the brothers fighting on opposite sides) has me interested too. Did she reveal what happened to them?

  9. Sandy says:

    I was pretty much blown away when I read Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. I had NO IDEA this had happened. I kinda got all bent out of shape over it frankly. I love the author’s inspiration to write this story.

  10. bookingmama says:

    I enjoyed this one a great deal too!

  11. aartichapati says:

    Ooh, fusion recipes?! That sounds awesome! I admit that the title and the front cover do not at first glance make me think even remotely of internment camps, but no doubt they make sense in time…

  12. Biblibio says:

    This is one of those periods of American history which is sadly often glossed over. I’m glad to see that more books about the Japanese internment – after reading the very good The Buddha in the Attic a few months ago, I find myself a bit more inclined towards another book on the topic. This seems like a good choice.

  13. Heather says:

    I’ve seen a few other reviews that have raved about this one, and I think it’s exactly the kind of book I would love. Need to make time for it!!

  14. I never tire of this part of WWII’s history and so naturally I hope one day to read this book.

  15. I have a copy of this to read and really need to get to it. It sounds fantastic. I knew about the internment camps but didn’t know that people would follow their spouses. I can see why they would, though.

  16. Care says:

    This does sound good. And the cover is lovely. Recipes, too?! wow.

  17. I’ve been wanting to read this one for awhile. Now, I really have to read it. Great review!

  18. Jenners says:

    Definitely a story and bit of history that must be told. And I love how you dig up all these little historical tidbits for us too.

  19. This sounds like a wonderful novel. The premise reminds me a bit of Snow Falling on Cedars. Have you read that?

    http://eclecticbooksandmovies.blogspot.com/

  20. I’m so glad that you liked this one too. I loved it and thought Kristina did a wonderful job keeping her book balanced and weaving those facts within the story.

  21. stacybuckeye says:

    I tend to shy away from these books that will just make me angry and sad, but I love the inspiration and if I get to angry I can just gaze at the beautiful cover to soothe me. One sixteenth made you Japanese and a potential threat? Unbelievable.

  22. jennala9 says:

    I’m glad I saw this review because I have had the book on my wishlist but forgot what it was about! It seems like there have been a lot of books out lately about this part of history and it’s fascinating, probably because I knew little about it. It’s crazy to think of the government doing that to all those people. I really need to read this one I think!

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