While reading my way through the recuperation from my foot surgery, I read a wonderful memoir, Kiyo's Story, by Kiyo Sato. The subtitle is A Japanese-American Family's Quest for the American Dream. Originally the title was Dandelion Through the Crack, suggesting how the spirit can bloom, despite unbelievable adversity. This book won the 2008 William Saroyan Prize for Non Fiction and should be required reading in high school history classes to give young people an understanding of how political hysteria can sweep a nation into unthinkable behavior.
Kiyo was nineteen when she and her family, as well all of the Japanese -American communities on the West Coast, were sent to an interment camp; in the Satos' case, in Arizona. Prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, there was already a mindset in place: Japanese immigrants were not allowed to become citizens or to own land. Their children, however, were citizens by reason of birth. But following Pearl Harbor, and anyone with 1/16 or more Japanese ancestry was suddenly declared a "non-alien". Curfews were established. They were not allowed to travel more than a five mile radius from their homes. Finally they were rounded up, and forced to abandon their homes, taking only whatever they could carry on the train to an interment camp. The Sato family, like neighboring families, were fruit farmers; their fields would be untended. Some farms were simply taken over by squatters.
Kiyo Sato first acquaints the reader with her parents' lives before this tragedy. Her father, Shinji, left Japan as a boy because of extreme poverty in his village. He labored for farmers in California, returned to Japan to wed a pretty nurse, and saved enough money that, through the help of others who were citizens, he could obtain a parcel of land. (At the time, Japanese immigrants were not allowed to own land.)
Kiyo's mother, Tomomi, worked side by side with Shinji in the fields, as did Kiyo and, later, her eight brothers and sisters. Slowly they brought the barren acreage to life until their produce was in demand and they had markets as far away as Canada. The close-knit family lived frugally, with dignity, as did their neighbors, happy to be making their way in the Promised Land.
Skip ahead twenty years, and they are stripped of everything they worked for, on their way to a camp guarded with soldiers, living with minimal privacy in cramped, thinly partitioned rooms, eating meals in overflowing mess halls meant for 250 people.
This could have been a scaldingly bitter book. Instead, it is a testimony to how the spirit can triumph. Kiyo's Story charts the course of lives lived with integrity, no matter what the injustice: Some young men, including one of Kiyo's brothers, enlist in the military to show their loyalty. The Satos and fellow inmates farm the land in camp, bringing flowers and crops out dessert soil. Classes are started for the children. Adults hold meetings to resolve festering problems.
Their repeated reminder to each other is, "For the sake of the children . . . ." They bend gracefully to what cannot be helped and hope for the future, rather than breaking down. Shinji never loses faith that this will pass, they will return home, and he and Tomomi will one day be granted citizenship -- which does come to pass. Tomomi is selfless in her devotion to family and friends. Both show their trust in life by deeds rather than words.
I cried several times while reading this book, not just because of the sadness they experienced, but in the deeper recognition of how they triumphed over hardships that could have destroyed them. Tomomi's gentle spirit shines as she takes unceasing care of her family. Shinji, a farmer with the soul of a poet, writes haiku and nurtures beauty. The devotion and wisdom of both permeate every thing they do. This is a book to be read more than once -- one that shows the true meaning of abundance and grace.
Kiyo's Story can be purchased here, and here, and here.