Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Color of the Sea, by John Hamamura

Although I knew the basic details of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, this book makes me realize how little I actually knew. John Hamamura takes readers inside the lives of many Japanese Americans growing up and living just before, during, and after the war, and makes more real than most history books the impact of this event on Japanese American families and the larger culture.

This novel, written for adults, tells the story of Sam Hamada, a young man who is born in Japan, grows up in Hawaii, and comes of age in California. Sam is an excellent student of both American and Japanese culture, and is a hero of epic proportions. Like the central character of Samurai Shortstop, he is trained in bushido, the way of the Samurai warrior. Sam uses his skills to survive in a modern world that no longer embraces this code, but yet is in much need of the best that it has to offer.

What Sam is most in need of is something that bushido does not easily convey or accept. Love, forgiveness, understanding, and compassion. He acquires these gifts from his first teacher, Fujiwara-san, his first love, Yuriko, and his California sweetheart, Keiko (who actually emerges as something of a co-protagonist over the middle of the novel). The lessons that Sam learns serve him exceedingly well when he joins the United States army and confronts face to face the horrors of war and in particular Hiroshima.

This is a book that I would recommend without reservation for use in high school classrooms except for the fact that there are several highly erotic scenes in the text that probably will scare away most high school teachers. The language is touching and entirely in keeping with the rest of the text, but this might be a book to recommend rather than teach directly. In any event, the story itself is very powerful. I was riveted by the final sections of the novel which deal directly with the invasion of Okinawa and the dropping of the atomic bomb.

Since this is the second novel that I have read for this project that explores bushido and Japanese culture, I can't help but question why this topic is so prominent in books recommended by the Young Adult Library Services Association. As I stated in my last posting, it seems that the search for organic relationships is a definite theme in current young adult literature, no doubt because of all of the fragmentation and turbulence in the world today. Color of the Sea reinforces this idea through its representation of an approach to life highly sensitive to the interconnectedness of all things.

But what strikes me most about this book is the way it presents various instances in which Sam Hamada faces no right or true choices; rather, at various moments, he is stuck between a rock and a hard place, and forced to choose between two equally compelling loyalties (a circumstance captured by the ancient Japanese quotation "Ko naran to hosseba chu naran;chu naran to hosseba ko naran"). This makes me think that perhaps we are seeing representations of the samurai warrior in young adult literature because people in the United States, too, seem to be stuck between a rock and a hard place in terms of making decisions about the ongoing war in Iraq, immigration, and health care. Perhaps this book, with its emphasis on the mindset needed to make tough choices, has the potential to educate young and old Americans alike about what they need to do to move forward, what they need to do to learn from the past and think differently.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Floor of the Sky, by Pamela Carter Joern

Reading The Floor of the Sky makes me think that perhaps this is the Age of Organics. Not because this novel and the world are increasingly rich in organic foods, but because this novel and current norms seem increasingly focused on the creation of organic relationships, not only with food, but also with the land and other elements of the universe.

This adult novel, recommended for teen readers by the Young Adult Library Services Association, tells the story of a teenage girl, Lila, and her decision-making related to the baby she bears within her pregnant body. Because the novel was not conceived especially for teenage readers, the story focuses primarily on the complicated relationships Lila has to her rural Nebraskan family, and especially the uncovering of various secrets that swirl around Lila's benefactor and the family matriarch, Toby. Indeed, it is Toby's efforts to come to terms with her own past decision-making, and relationships to her neighbors, daughter, family, and region that are really at the heart of this novel.

Even though a central theme is the creation of organic relationships, there is little that is stereotypically organic about the characters in this text. There is a prayer wheel that Toby walks around, and some neighbors who are raising cattle in a more natural, "traditional" way. But Lila and her grandmother are rough and rugged individualists, who avoid for the most part following trends or easy paths. They live on a ranch, go to rodeos, and disparage weak thinking--something that has been going on in their family and their part of the world for many years.

In the background are some familiar challenges of modern life, and contemporary rural life in particular: teenage pregnancy, meth addiction, economic instability, divorce, and rigid family patriarchs. Toby and Lila face these problems without apparant fear, but with a good deal of uncertainty and moral resolve.

Given that The Floor of the Sky so clearly represents the importance of growing healthy, organic relationships among rural people and their environments, it's ironic that the novel as a whole doesn't cohere quite as well as one might hope. Pamela Joern tells her story from multiple perspectives, and each unit of description and insight is well planned, beautifully written, and entertaining within itself. Unfortunately, the pieces don't always come together seamlessly or satisfyingly. At the end, one remembers some really beautiful patches of writing about rural land and people, rather than a terrific storyline.

Despite this minor flaw, I'm looking forward to reading more by Pamela Joern, and I think older teenagers with an interest in feminism and/or rural life also will enjoy this novel very much. High school teachers looking for material to explore contemporary rural life and writing from different perspectives also might find this book interesting, perhaps in combination with The World Made Straight, another novel that explores the contemporary rural world with clarity and grace.

If you have a little time on your hands, and want to return to the topic of organic food, check out this satirical video below called "Store Wars."