Thursday, August 31, 2006

Historical Fiction

Whilst in Portland, I read a short book titled "When the Emperor Was Divine", by Julie Otsuka. At only 144 pages, it is difficult to believe that this novel can cover the subject of the Japanese Internment during WWII so well, so evocatively.

I've never studied this chapter in American history, other than perhaps as a footnote to our study of WWII. Reading this book made me think of how effective a class would be that incorporated the dry facts of history with novels, which really open one's eyes and imaginations to the experiences of those people who were alive at a particular time and place. What if, for example, while studying the Civil War, we read The Red Badge of Courage as well as our text book? And during the study of the depression and the dust bowl, we read "The Grapes of Wrath"? Reading these books later on, after studying the events in school, really gave me a greater understanding of the time. I think that is one of the true gifts of literature.

Back to the book. It is told in 5 parts, in terse, matter-of-fact language. Each part of the story is told from a different point of view, from the various members of a Japanese-American family who were taken from Berkeley to live in an internment camp in Utah. Except the father, who is suspected of being a traitor and collaborating with the Japanese government...he is taken elsewhere, to Texas. The language is so sparse, so carefully constructed, we never even learn the names of the various family members. Yet, even without their names, we identify closely with them, and we come to a better understanding of this horrible time. (Side note...our dentist was in one of these internment camps as a child, grew up and joined the military...but we haven't talked about it beyond that. It would be an interesting story to hear.)

From the book, on that period of readjustment after returning to their home in Berkeley:
We looked at ourselves in the mirror and did not like what we saw: black hair, yellow skin, slanted eyes. The cruel face of the enemy.
We were guilty.
Just put it behind you.
No good.
Let it go.
A dangerous people.
You're free now.
Who could never be trusted again.
All you have to do is behave.
On the street we tried to avoid our own reflections wherever we could. We turned away from shiny surfaces and storefront windows. We ignored the passing glances of strangers. What kind of "ese" are you, Japanese or Chinese?
I highly recommend this book. It's pretty amazing stuff.

Next in line, after I finish Mrs. Blackwell's memoir, is another book of historical fiction, which I picked up in Portland. It's called The Jump Off Creek, and it's the story of a widow who leaves the Midwest to settle in the mountains of Oregon in the 1890s. That would be an interesting read while studying westward expansion, don't you think?

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