Since beginning this blog in 2008, I have read two fictional accounts of Japanese internment during World War II and one nonfiction account, Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston. One of those fictional accounts, Obasan by Joy Kogawa, is set in Canada and was required reading for me in high school while the other, Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson, is set on an island off the coast of Washington in the United States and was one of the seventy-five books on my classics club list. I would recommend all three books especially Guterson’s novel, which is one of the best explorations of the affects hysteria and prejudice can have on a community long after a horrific event occurs.
I remember being utterly shocked as a child when I learned between 110,000 and 120,000 Japanese-Americans — many of them citizens since birth — were moved from the West Coast following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor to internment camps across the United States. It was so hard to reconcile such an action while simultaneously learning about the internment of gays, political prisoners, and Jewish people in Nazi Germany.
Reading Guterson’s novel back in October reminded me of how woefully ignorant I remain about this dark chapter in American and Canadian history so I’ve pulled together a list of nine books to help me “become the expert”. Since I cannot speak to the quality of each book, I’ve copied a snippet of the description from GooodReads in the hopes that will be enticement enough to pick up a copy of the books, which are mostly memoirs, listed below.
- Desert Exile (Yoshiko Uchida) — “To better understand how such a gross violation of human rights could have occurred in America, and how the Japanese reacted to it, the author takes a backward look at her parents’ early years in this country and her own experiences as a Nisei growing up in California. She evokes the strong anti-Asian climate of the years preceding the war, and provides an intimate glimpse of life in one Japanese American household.“
- I Am an American (Jerry Stanley) — This children’s book is illustrated with black-and-white photographs and follows young Shi Nomura, who was among the 120,000 American citizens who lost everything when he was sent by the U.S. government to Manzanar, an interment camp in the California desert, simply because he was of Japanese ancestry. According to School Library Journal, “this eloquent account of the disastrous results of racial prejudice stands as a reminder to us in today’s pluralistic society.”
- Justice At War (Peter Irons) — “Peter Irons’ exhaustive research has uncovered a government campaign of suppression, alteration, and destruction of crucial evidence that could have persuaded the Supreme Court to strike down the internment order. Irons documents the debates that took place before the internment order and the legal response during and after the internment.”
- Looking Like the Enemy (Mary Matsuda Gruenewald) — “Mary Matsuda is a typical 16-year-old girl living on Vashon Island, Washington with her family. On December 7, 1942, the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, and Mary’s life changes forever. Mary and her brother, Yoneichi, are U.S. citizens, but they are imprisoned, along with their parents, in a Japanese-American internment camp. Mary endures an indefinite sentence behind barbed wire in crowded, primitive camps, struggling for survival and dignity. Mary wonders if they will be killed, or if they will one day return to their beloved home and berry farm.” There is also an adaption of this book geared towards young readers.
- Nisei Daughter (Monica Itoi Sone) — From the New York Herald Tribune review: “In this book, first published in 1952, she provides a unique personal account of these experiences.Monica Sone’s account of life in the relocation camps is both fair and unsparing. It is also deeply touching, and occasionally hilarious.”
- Only What We Could Carry (ed. Lawson Fusao Inada) — “In the wake of wartime panic that followed the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor, more than 100,000 Japanese Americans residing along the West Coast of the United States were uprooted from their homes and their communities and banished to internment camps throughout the country. Through personal documents, art, and propaganda, Only What We Could Carry expresses through words, art, and haunting recollections, the fear, confusion and anger of the camp experience.”
- Prisoners Without Trial (Roger Daniels) — “Part of Hill and Wang’s Critical Issues Series and well established on college reading lists, Daniels’ book presents a concise introduction to a shameful chapter in American history: the incarceration of nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II.”
- Silver Like Dust (Kimi Cunningham Grant) — “There was one part of Obaachan’s life that had fascinated and haunted Kimi ever since the age of eleven—her gentle yet proud Obaachan had once been a prisoner, along with 112,000 Japanese Americans, for more than five years of her life. Obaachan never spoke of those years, and Kimi’s own mother only spoke of it in whispers. It was a source of haji, or shame. But what had really happened to Obaachan, then a young woman, and the thousands of other men, women, and children like her?”
- Within the Barbed Wire Fence (Takeo Ujo Nakano) — “In 1942, Takeo Nakano was one of thousands of Japanese men interned in labour camps in the British Columbia interior. Their only “crime” was their Japanese origins. Wrenched from his wife and daughter, placed in a labour camp and then an isolated internment camp in northern Ontario, Takeo wrote of his experiences, feelings and reflections with the sensitivity and perception of a poet.”