Jamie Ford's debut novel centres around the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Although many of these people had American citizenship and some did not even speak Japanese, they were rounded up and imprisoned in huge Collection Centres, well away from coastal and military areas. From other writing that I have read on the subject, I had the impression that lives in these camps were far more difficult and arduous than we were given to believe in this novel. In Jamie Ford's narrative, the removal of thousands of people, from their homes, with just two suitcases each, seems little more than an inconvenience.
The central character is Henry Lee, a Chinese-American, who meets Keiko Okabe at Rainier Elementary School, where they are both 'scholarshipping'. This seems to involve working in the kitchens and clearing the classrooms at the end of the day, in return for an education amongst white American kids. Henry has a very strange home life, where his father refuses to allow him to speak anything but 'American', even though neither of his parents can understand much of the language. When they discover Henry is best friends with a Japanese girl they are furious.
There are a lot of interesting cultural references pertaining to the treatment of both Chinese and Japanese by the American populace. Both are bullied in school, although Henry is supposedly on the 'right' side. He wears an 'I am Chinese' badge to distinguish him from the Japanese, who are the enemy. Now that he attends a Caucasian school, even the Chinese kids reject him, calling him 'White Devil' as they pass him on the way to school. Henry and Keiko's one friend, Sheldon, a Black-American jazz player represents another persecuted sector of the populace, although he is better off in Seattle than he had been further south.
Although this book has been very well received, I found I was a little disappointed. I find it hard to put my finger on why, but I found the language a bit off, almost as if it was written with modern English to represent a time now long passed. After a while I relaxed into it, but initially I had to skim read or I'd keep sticking on words or phrases that grated with me. There was also a slightly saccharine feel to the story, especially towards the end. Henry's prospective daughter-in-law was definitely super sickly.
For lovers of jazz there are references to the Seattle jazz scene of the time, with some atmospheric club settings. This wasn't enough for me to give it five stars, but it's still worth a read.
Requiem by Francis Itani (4 stars) Internment of Japanese Canadians in Canada
Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford (3.5 stars)