I have a very large soft spot for Asian based stories. I was very excited to read this book because although there are a great many books about the Holocaust and American and European accounts of World War II the stories of Japanese in America during the time of internment camps are few. Most people have forgotten that Japanese families were rounded up and spent years in camps with little to nothing as far as possessions in terrible, harsh conditions while many of the males were held and imprisoned on suspicion of sedition. It was a broad generalization of a nationality that punished and penalized thousands of AMERICANS who were innocent in every way but of having a heritage related to that of the Imperial Japanese Navy who had attacked the US Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. It was an unspeakable racial bias that has been swept under the rug while Americans keep alive the memory of prejudice of blacks, women and religious practices as something we have overcome.
Dust of Eden is a book about a Seattle family in 1941 who are living happily in their neighborhood. Mina Masako Tagawa and her Japanese-American family consisting of her emigrant grandfather, mother, father and wayward brother, Nick Toshio are normal Americans–all who have a place in Seattle society until the day after December 7, 1941 when news arrives of the Imperial Japanese Navy attack on the Naval base at Pearl Harbor. They are no longer just the Tagawas from that point forward, now they have become the Japs, the dirty Jap-nese. Mina and Nick find schoolmates become cruel and on the streets and in shops people who once showed kindness to her mother speak behind their hands now and mutter slurs. The Tagawa’s are unwelcome in their own hometown and any where else they go would only be the same.
As interesting as the story might be the narration and lack of punctuation is so distressingly poor that it makes the passages near impossible to follow in many parts. The style goes from paragraph form to verse for no foreseeable reason in the middle of chapters and stories. I understand that the author is a poet and many people find this a work of poetic genius but this is a YA novel which makes it word salad for those who adolescents reading it and already have issues with things that have punctuation at normal times. Since I can read Japanese it is easy when there are sentences in romaji but Mariko Nagai never puts anything in quotations and although she does put translations in parentheses the method of Japanese translation feels awkward. I might have written it differently so it was more engaging.
Grandpa holds out his hand, Nihnodanji
No na o kegasuna
(don’t shame the reputation of Japanese men),
rippa ni tatakatte koi
(fight well and make
Nick laughs so loud that
he could almost blow
away the guards above the tower. He could
shatter the sky
with his ready laugh.
I quoted that as it was written in the book with sentence breaks included. It is actually broken up that way throughout the entire page. And it is only like this on some pages, on others it is full paragraph style. As for making it more palatable for young readers I might have differentiate the speaking from the emotives and it could have been a more interactive conversation if the grandfather said, “Nihondanji no na o kegasuna.” and then Mariko Nagai could have had Nick respond with, “I won’t shame the reputation of Japanese men, Grandfather.” Again with the target audience thing, you are already handicapping young readers by offering a book in poetic verse sans any sentence full stops, the fact that no where in this book is actual conversation makes it even more cumbersome. What child wants to read a book written like a grocery list that lacks any interaction and is just a summary of events?
Mina’s family story begins in Seattle in October 1941 and doesn’t end until August 1945, one of the most infamous times in world history. Mariko Nagai is a professor of creative writing at Temple University, Tokyo, Japan and I wish I could say that this is the book I would recommend as a YA novel regarding Japanese and Japanese-American young adults and children in internment camps during this time simply because she is Japanese and she is writing about the history of the heritage of her own people, but it isn’t. The book I would recommend isn’t written by a Japanese author. It is by Barry Denenberg‘s The Journal of Ben Uchida from the My Name is America series. The Dear America series and all it’s assorted relations is a great taste of history for young adults and the Journal of Ben Uchida is better than Dust of Eden because it is simply written and consumable for those reading at the age level of the character. It’s wonderful to write artfully and stylistically but you must always do so within the party you are celebrating.
Mariko Nagai is a modern day renaissance woman; she is a professor, poet and novelist, traveler and photographer. To learn more about her visit her website, Twitter, Imagista, Amazon Author’s Page, Pinterest, and Goodreads.
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