A carefully researched little novel, Otsuka’s first, about the US internment of Japanese citizens during WWII that’s perfect down to the tiniest detail but doesn’t stir the heart.
Shortly after the war begins, the father of an unnamed Japanese family of four in Berkeley, California, is taken from his home—not even given time to dress—and held for questioning. His wife and two children won’t see him until after war’s end four years later, when he’ll have been transformed into a suddenly very old man, afraid, broken, and unwilling to speak even a word about what happened to him. Meanwhile, from the spring of 1942 until the autumn after the armistice, the mother, age 42, with her son and daughter of 8 and 11, respectively, will be held in camps in high-desert Utah, treeless and windswept, where they’ll live in rows of wooden barracks offering little privacy, few amenities, and causing them to suffer—the mother especially—greater and greater difficulty in hanging on to any sense of hope or normality. The characters are denied even first names, perhaps as a way of giving them universality, but the device does nothing to counteract the reader’s ongoing difficulty in entering into them. Details abound—book titles, contemporary references (the Dionne quints, sugar rationing), keepsakes the children take to the camp (a watch, a blue stone), euthanizing the family dog the night before leaving for the camps—but still the narrative remains stubbornly at the surface, almost like an informational flow, causing the reader duly to acknowledge these many wrongs done to this unjustly uprooted and now appallingly deprived American family—but never finding a way to go deeper, to a place where the attention will be held rigid and the heart seized.
Earnestly done, and correctly, but information trumps drama, and the heart is left out.