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.

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