Land of the Free
I was 36 years old when I learned that my mother played the violin. It surprised me at first, as I had never considered her particularly musical. But now that I look back, I recall watching her dance at ritual of obon in kimono and obi, moving in concise, repetitive steps around and around to the music, tilting her head as her eyes followed the graceful movements of her hands against the nighttime sky.
She mentioned the violin in a discussion of war. I had asked what the most difficult thing was to leave behind when she and her family were forced out of their Yuba City home and imprisoned during World War II. She said it was her violin, and then described how her parents, farm laborers, had paid for it in monthly installments and sold it for almost nothing before stepping onto a bus, then a train and, eventually, the unfamiliar, barren terrain of Camp Amache in southern Colorado.
Even now, whenever I envision her as a young girl, I see her with the violin, and in my mind, I hear a mournful song. I heard it again as I read Allen Say’s “Home of the Brave.”
It wasn’t so bad, my mother said of internment, except for the wind and cold, the lingering taste of dust. They lived in a hastily built shack, but the truth was that the house they lived in before the war was not much better. I never understood how such an experience could be not so bad. Perhaps it has to do with my mother’s Buddhist faith, which defines the world as a place of suffering.
Shikata ga nai (it cannot be helped). These are my mother’s words. It is a familiar phrase to the 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry who were imprisoned in 10 camps built in remote areas of the nation’s interior. It is what they said to one another behind barbed wire in harsh winter and ruthless summer, the slow passage of seasons of war. Shikata ga nai. How could they not say more?
I would not have expected that a book for children would provide a truer meaning of the phrase. Say, the son of a Korean father and Japanese American mother, wrote “Home of the Brave” after attending a retrospective of his work two years ago at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo.
While at the museum, Say, winner of the 1994 Caldecott Medal for “Grandfather’s Journey,” was also entranced by “Common Ground: The Heart of Community,” an ongoing exhibition about the history of Japanese Americans, including photos and artifacts from internment camps. “I stared and listened,” he writes in the epilogue. “And what I saw and heard turned into yet another personal journey. This is that story.”
It begins on the bank of a river. The central character, a man of Japanese ancestry, first listens to the river, then enters it in his kayak, whereupon he is thrust into rapids, then down a waterfall into darkness, stripped of vessel, helmet, paddle, life jacket, all means of controlling destiny.
It is an unlikely beginning to a provocative, dreamlike tale, but Say’s storytelling, when at its best, tends to be wonderfully unpredictable, well beyond the narrow realm of adults. In “A River Dream” (1988), he wrote of a street turning into a river. In “The Sign Painter” (2000), an amusement park with a towering roller coaster appears like a mirage on an isolated desert butte.
Like those ordered into the camps, the man suddenly has no control over his journey, and Say takes giant leaps from one page to the next. From darkness the man discovers a ladder leading to light and, as he climbs, he reaches a moon-like desert, where he sees two children alone in the distance.
They are two young girls with name tags hanging from the collars of their coats. Say’s illustration of the girls is based on a 1942 Dorothea Lange photograph of a Hayward-area family. The black-and-white photograph, capturing lives in turmoil, became one of the defining images of the internment process.
“‘What are you doing here?’ he asked.
‘Waiting to go home,’ the girl answered.
‘How did you get here?’ he asked.
‘From the camp,’ she said.
‘And where is your home?’ he asked.
They did not answer.”
The man leads the girls through a dust storm to the camp, where he discovers traces of his ancestors and more children seeking to return home. The man also encounters Native American children similarly displaced and living on a reservation.
Say’s use of darkness in the portrayal of childhood innocence is a poignant interpretation of what children, whatever their culture, must feel when so tiny and scared and far from where they long to be.
Perhaps the most haunting illustration in the book is of a group of interned children, “one large body with many eyes.” Each wears a name tag as they stand in front of cold, bare mountains and darkening sky.
Then, all at once, the small mouths opened.
“Take us home,” they chanted.
The children scatter as watchtower guards order them to disperse and chase them into the darkness with beams of light. The man loses sight of them and returns to the river, where he falls asleep. When he awakens he sees Native American children who have found his kayak. He may leave, but they cannot.
The journey ends prodigiously and poetically as he and the children watch a cloud of internee name tags magically whisk and swirl into the sky like paper birds.
“‘They went home,’ said a child.
‘Yes, they went home,’ the man said.
And the children nodded.”
Young readers or listeners will have questions, foremost among them: “Why were the camps created?” “Why were reservations created?” For some, the story may serve as an introduction to social injustice. I have read the book as both father and son. When I read it to my 4-year-old daughter, who is named after my mother, she commented on the children.
“They look like me,” she said.
I did not address issues of race, the fact that her grandmother was imprisoned in such a camp. We will reach that point later, perhaps when she is old enough to read the letter of apology my mother received from then-President George H.W. Bush in 1990. It was included with a check for $20,000 in restitution.
“We can never fully right the wrongs of the past,” Bush wrote. “But we can take a clear stand for justice and recognize that serious injustices were done to Japanese Americans during World War II.”
Say delivers the same message, using different words. My mother, too, uses different words.
Shikata ga nai. I have a better understanding now. I hear strength and courage and darkness, a sense of quiet desperation I didn’t hear before. The phrase is written in the confused, fearful eyes of lost children, regardless of their culture, in the power of an angry river and the mournful song of a violin. It is written in tears my daughter has not yet cried.