Growing Up Japanese-American : THE FLOATING WORLD by Cynthia Kadohata (Viking Press: $17.95; 196 pp.; 0-670-82680-4)

"The Floating World," Cynthia Kadohata's first novel, centers around the Osaka family, part of a migratory wave of Japanese-Americans traveling through the Pacific Northwest searching for work in the early 1950s.

Twelve-year-old Olivia, through whom this remarkable story is told, listens as her grandmother, Obasan, laments," my memories are a string of pearls and rocks." Obasan, who has outlived three husbands and seven lovers and who scandalized society as a young woman by smoking cigars when women were not even permitted to smoke cigarettes, complains to everyone who will listen but mainly to Olivia, "because she is the oldest (of the children) . . . ."

Olivia's family is in constant motion, saying goodby, packing, unpacking, looking ahead and wondering what the next stop will bring. Though they are on the move, she feels secure within the cocoon-like closeness of her family. "We were stable traveling through an unstable world while my father looked for jobs."

Traveling however, in the narrow confines of the family auto and sharing one motel room, the girl becomes a reluctant witness to the dynamics of her parents' unhappy relationship.

Charles Osaka, whom everyone calls Charlie-O, had married Olivia's mother when she was seven months pregnant by another man. Just as the family seems unconnected to their temporary surroundings, Olivia's mother, well mannered and refined, appears to float in a private world of disappointment, unconnected to Charlie-O's love for her.

"What do you want?" said Charlie-O very quietly.

"I don't want anything," my mother said.

"You don't understand--I want you to want something."

"I just don't want you to be mad," my mother said to the window. A small steam circle formed on the glass where she was talking. I felt very old suddenly, because I knew she'd only said that for him. What she'd said first was closer to the truth: She didn't want anything he could give her."

So the family remains in motion, in pursuit of equally elusive emotional and financial fulfillment.

At one point, while driving to visit some friends, Charlie-O said, 'should I make a right here?'

" 'No,' I said.

"He turned anyway, too sharply, and we ended up in a ditch.

" 'Whoops, sweetie-dog,' he said. "I thought you said yes. I thought she said yes."

"We sat there for several minutes, as if we'd simply come to a very long traffic light. Eventually Charlie-O said, 'all right,' and got out of the car, slipping almost immediately and falling to the ground. My mother and I got out to help him. He lay on the ground with his eyes open, blinking. We lifted him into the car, then patted down the dirt round the wheels. We weren't sure whether that was what we were supposed to do, but it made us feel better. I pushed in back with my brothers while my mother accelerated, the wheels whipping dirt into the air. The car didn't budge. Despite protests from my mother, my father got out of the car. 'Aw, I can help,' he said. He pushed with my brothers and me. I found myself pushing harder than before. My legs stretched out as I tried to get into a good position, and my cheek rested against the cool metal of the trunk. The effort took me over, and I realized how badly I wanted my father to be able to say later that he helped get us out of that ditch. I thought that would help the marriage somehow. But it was no good. The car remained stuck. Finally my mother and I found a house, and a man came to help us. My mother took over the driving."

Throughout their travels, Olivia, her mother, and her stepfather remain caught up in this heartbreaking tug-of-love.

Before settling in Arkansas where Charlie-O buys into a garage business, their search takes them through Oregon, Washington, Wyoming and California. They travel lightly, taking care not to offend as they traverse a post- World War II landscape pockmarked by memories of midnight arrests and mass internments.

They act politely, smiling at strangers: " 'Smile at them,' my grandmother would say. 'Hakujin (white people) don't know when a smile is an insult.' She always said her experience showed that if you hated white people, they would just hate you back, and nothing would change in the world; and if you didn't hate them after the way they treated you, you would end up hating yourself, and nothing would change that way either. So it was no good not to hate them. So nothing changed."

As the family moves, Kadohata skillfully draws us into Olivia's world by allowing us to see through her eyes "a pet camel in someone's back yard, or a set of elderly twins dressed the same way down to their canes."

We see the dimensions of small towns when she says, "I like the downtowns best, the way the neon and shadows cut into each other when the streets are empty."

And the landscape assumes a surreal aspect ". . . when cars went by, far away, the beams were so bright they seemed to be ropes of light pulling the cars behind . . . ."

On the road, Olivia learns how her great-grandparents in Hawaii were forced by the local school- board to give their children American names so that "today, their original names are just shadows following them."

Olivia's coming of age is convincingly detailed and her adolescent dreams are rendered with such tenderness that her sexual awakening only seems to enhance her innocence.

Kadohata's prose also renders scenes of horror and loss: Olivia, now a young woman living in California with her boyfriend, notices ". . . there was an influx of Chinese refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia around the time Andy and I moved, and the children all played outside until bedtime. Our first year there, a mass murderer was loose in Los Angeles, and the children stopped playing outside for a while. The murderer had strangled someone across the street and his presence hung like fine dust over the rows of stucco apartments and rooming houses in the neighborhood. . . ."

At the beach with a party of friends, she observes ". . . a boat apparently stuck on a sandbar, sat near shore. Several times during the afternoon someone swam out to explore . . . so I swam out to the boat. I could smell it as I neared, a moldy, old, sad smell. On deck, the floor was damp and blackened, the steering wheel corroded. A plastic flag whipped in the wind. For a moment I stared at the flag, the only moving thing except for myself on board. I gasped when I saw a pair of children's shoes hanging from a nail--I thought they were feet hanging down. Inside the shoes I found a damp pair of socks wrapped around two quarters, a nickel, a penny. The boat jolted with each wave. The shoes had an eeriness about them, and it didn't surprise me that none of the afternoon's explorers had taken the money. I got the feeling the shoes' owner had passed away; and out of respect for him or her, I rewrapped the coins and replaced them. There was something about the care with which the socks were wrapped that indicated a conscientious, serious child; also, something about the 56 cents touched me, for at one time I believed that pennies could buy a great deal and so deserved to be wrapped carefully. . . ."

Kadohata writes compellingly of Olivia's coming of age, her determination to grow beyond her parents' dreams; and break free, or at least outdistance, the yoke of guilt bequeathed by Obasan's death. We feel the poignancy of Charlie-O's fumbling search for a meaning to his personal chaos, his need for a moral order to still the shifting sand beneath his feet. And filtering through these small personal struggles looms the larger one of a people trying to find a workable niche in an alien, sometimes hostile, environment

As Obasan notes, memory is indeed a string of pearls and rocks, but Kadohata's imagery makes the pearls shine and the rocks glow.

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