March 04, 2012

Torn Apart: The Internment Diary of Mary Kobayashi, Vancouver, British Columbia, 1941

by Susan Aihoshi
Scholastic Canada
209 pp.
Ages 8-13

In Torn Apart: The Internment Diary of Mary Kobayashi, Mary turns twelve and looks forward to the simple pleasures of playing tennis with her friends, Sachiko, Maggie and Ellen; going to Girl Guides and Guide camp; attending baseball games with her family; and earning some money for a new bike by berry-picking in Surrey.  Although there is a war going on overseas, her life is filled with the simple joys of childhood and the caring of her large family: Mama and Papa; Geechan (her grandfather); older brothers Tad and Mike; older sisters Kay and Emma; and annoying little brother, Harry.  But soon, small changes impose on her reality.

At school, where they now do "war work" (e.g., sewing, knitting, map-reading, first aid), Mary endures occasional racial slurs, while the older members of her family acquiesce to carrying their registration cards with them.  The veiled prejudice aimed at Japanese-Canadians becomes more public after the December 7 bombing of the American military base at Pearl Harbor and Canada's declaration of war on Japan the following day.  Regardless of their citizenship, beliefs, desire to join Canada's military, or reputations, the Japanese-Canadians watch as their Japanese-language newspapers are shut down, their fishing boats seized by the navy, and secure jobs lost. While the older members of her family experience firsthand the discrimination of Canada's government and society, Mary notes what is happening but continues to enjoy a life rich in friendships and family.

However, the consequences of Japan's activities overseas, including seizing Hong Kong and later Singapore, bring a new round of governmental actions aimed at fraying the freedoms of Canada's Japanese, like requiring them to surrender their cars, radios and cameras; follow a dawn-to-dusk curfew; move to "relocation centres"; and concede to being rounded like Mary's Geechan and sent to work camps in the Rockies and elsewhere.  With Geechan's leaving, the fabric of Mary's family begins to rip, and slowly they become separated: Mike gets orders to work on a road crew; Tad volunteers for work in northern Ontario; the RCMP take Papa; and Emma, Kay and Mary are sent to the ghost town of New Denver, while Mama remains in Vancouver with a hospitalized Harry. 

While reading this newest addition to Scholastic Canada's Dear Canada series, I agonized over the cumulative losses endured by Mary and her family.  But, after finishing my reading, I know that Susan Aihoshi was correct in emphasizing the Torn Apart nature of the Japanese-Canadian story.  Like a strong furoshiki, able to heft great loads, the Kobayashi's are strong because of their connections, as a family, to each other and to their communities, Japanese and Canadian.  But, the challenges of fear and ignorance strive to weaken the fabric, ripping it unceremoniously with Geechan's departure, and more so with each separation.

Susan Aihoshi appropriately uses Mary's voice to express the experience of the Japanese-Canadians during the latter half of World War II.  Mary is neither as naive and oblivious as young Harry, who wants to play war and the board game "Yellow Peril", nor succumbing to the life-altering demands of an ignorant government.  But, she witnesses the perplexing about-turn of an ill-informed society and she tries to keep her reality intact.  Luckily, small kindnesses and thoughtful support slowly weave the frayed threads of that furoshiki together again.  Though never the same as the original, the mending offers some hope for re-creating the family tapestry, perhaps with new threads of different hues and composition.

N.B. Susan Aihoshi includes a wealth of historical notes and graphics to enhance and reference Mary's fictional tale.

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