Kollenborn’s debut novel explores life in the Manzanar Japanese internment camp during World War II, focusing on two teenage boys struggling with their identities as first-generation Americans.
Jim and Goro, or Russell as he prefers to be called, are ordinary teenagers growing up on Bainbridge Island, near Seattle, WA. They don’t especially like each other, but after Pearl Harbor, their families are thrown together for the duration of the war at Manzanar, one of the Japanese internment camps. They feel rejected by America and unsure of their places in the world. As they navigate the difficulties of camp life—gangs, informers, racism, illness, defeated and dispirited parents—they also go to dances, meet girls and learn to fight. Growing up, each responds differently to the challenge of forging an American identity. Kollenborn shows she’s done her research; Manzanar’s privations are fully rendered as the camp slowly transforms as the prisoners plant gardens, acquire a radio here or a new dress there, start a newspaper and organize themselves. She avoids easy moralizing while showing the injustice of the camps. Bizarre use of language, however, obscures the book’s merits. Readers will stumble again and again, as if running an absurdist obstacle course, into phrases and sentences like these: “Hours absorbed the clock like soap absorbing water, lathering time into a smooth thickness”; “everyone crippled in disgust and shock”; “Mist outlined the black vehicle like pebbles in a pond.” Despite the depth of the author’s research, children wrongly address their mothers as “Mama-san,” a term reserved for women in charge of bars, geisha houses and the like.
This overly long novel’s mangled phrasing impedes the reading process.