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Resilience of a culture uprooted and replanted

Special to The Times

The Legend of Fire Horse Woman

A Novel

Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston

Kensington Books: 330 pp., $23

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“The Legend of Fire Horse Woman” is at once hopelessly romantic and stirringly hopeful, mawkishly palpitating and touchingly genuine. It has enough heavy breathing to fill your ordinary grocery store romance novel, yet conveys multiple delicate shades of human feeling and passion.

It is the first novel of Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, coauthor of “Farewell to Manzanar,” the account of her Japanese American family’s internment during World War II in the wind-swept Owens Valley below the peaks of the Sierra Nevada.

Houston is especially fine in evoking the Japanese past of the woman brought from a village near Hiroshima to California a little more than a century ago as a “shashin-kekkon” -- a “picture bride” -- for an immigrant Japanese man. No less deft is her sketch of the shock of a new, looser America upon the deeply traditional sensibilities of her heroine, Sayo.

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A legend, whose theme is the ideal of strong womanhood, was passed down to Sayo from her mentor in Japan, a former geisha. In it, a woman mounts a fire-breathing horse and becomes, in dreams and folk tales, a power herself, remarkable in male-dominated Japanese society. In America, Sayo finds she is able to realize fully in her own life the force of this ancient story.

The novel moves between her later life in Manzanar during the war, where Sayo is imprisoned with her daughter and granddaughter, and her early years in California. The scenes in Manzanar are vivid, with its strong heat, searing cold and numbing boredom. Some of the men fight. Traditional social bonds are in disarray. Husbands and wives split. Children drift from their families to their friends.

The episodes in Northern California shortly after Sayo arrives are softer-toned: pear blossoms in the valley around San Jose, idyllic grunion-catching parties on the beach near Watsonville, the pleasant rhythms of life in the growing Japanese communities. They have imported the geisha house (and also brothels for the many unmarried men), and established in their new home the o furo -- the bath -- and koi ponds.

The Manzanar scenes sound authentic and quite modern in a gritty way. The gentler early California sketches convincingly evoke what it could indeed have been like when the descendants of an ancient Asian culture transplanted themselves in the raw California landscape a hundred years ago.

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As social history “The Legend of Fire Horse Woman” excels. As a novel it is not as satisfying. The principal female characters -- Sayo, her daughter and her granddaughter -- are persuasively well realized, all three drawn from the perspective of a sturdily independent contemporary American woman.

The male characters are more unevenly limned. The husband whom Sayo sailed to America to meet is sympathetically drawn, but he soon disappears into the fog of an opium den in San Francisco. The love of her long life is her husband’s mysterious best friend, Cloud, who has learned to speak some Japanese.

By the time we are in Manzanar with Sayo and her family, some of them have mysterious visions and dreams of strangely familiar people -- yes, the Native Americans on whose former lands they are imprisoned, and whose ancestors crossed the land bridge from Asia. Cloud is part Paiute, a tribe that dwells in the Owens Valley, and he leads ghost dances to prevent, unsuccessfully as it turns out, the whites from stealing more of his tribe’s ancestral water through the Los Angeles Aqueduct project.

In this novel washed in romantic tints, Cloud is the male figure most favored. Tall and handsome, he is unfailingly kind, gentle, sexy and wise, the perfect partner for the beautiful, indestructible, sexy and loving Sayo.

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If the two of them seem too good to be true, why, that is the way we would wish them to be, isn’t it?


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