April 30, 2013
For a long time, there were painfully few novels that were about the experience of Japanese Americans who were put into concentration camps during World War II. “Farewell to Manzanar
,” by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston, which was published in 1973, stood alone, unless you counted the powerful post-war story of John Okada’s 1957 classic, “No-No Boy
In recent years, there have been more fictional works set during internment, most notably David Guterson’s “Snow Falling on Cedars
” but also Julie Otsuka’s “When the Emperor Was Divine
,” Rahna Reiko Rizzuto’s “Why She Left Us
,” K.P. Kollenborn’s “Eyes Behind Belligerence
” and even a children’s book, “Baseball Saved Us
” by Ken Mochizuki and and Dom Lee.
And now, there’s “The Red Kimono
,” a terrific novel by Jan Morrill
and published by the University of Arkansas Press.
Morrill, who is hapa (her mother was interned during the war) and who lives in Arkansas, writes, as they say, about what she knows. “The Red Kimono” is chockfull of finely observed details that draw the reader into the world of a Japanese American family in Berkeley, California at the start of World War II. Through thorough historical research and her own knowledge and family experiences, Morrill captures what life was like during that era, and also accurately captures the values that informed Japanese Americans as their lives were so tragically disrupted.
The story is told through the experiences of three young people who were shaped by the events that followed the bombing of Pearl Harbor: Nine-year-old Sachiko Kimura and her 17-year-old brother Nobu, and Nobu’s friend Terrence Harris, a young African American schoolmate.
The power of “The Red Kimono” is in its interweaving of racial issues that run deeper than the unjust imprisonment of 120,000 people of Japanese descent. Morrill sets the internment narrative on its edge by exploring the complex relationships of white/black/Asian/southern values clashing amidst the chaotic social backdrop of the war.