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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Kristin Johnson Lauds Historical Connections of David Conlin Mcleod's New Book

Today we have a guest blog from Kristin Johnson, freelance writer and screenwriter. Thanksgiving Day seems a perfect time for these memories of how connected are love and tolerance and our dedicated military.

By Kristin Johnson, founder of Poet Warriors

In January 2009 I will visit the USS Arizona Memorial in Honolulu, Hawai’i. In July 2008, I paid a visit to Manzanar War Relocation Center National Historical Site (NHS) in Lone Pine, California. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which relocated Japanese-Americans to detention centers such as Manzanar, Minidoka, Idaho, and Tule Lake, California.

In blistering July sunlight, I walked the paths of Manzanar, past the signposts for the barracks. The Visitor Center, which I had browsed upon arrival, was an avalanche of emotional information. The replica of a watchtower and pictures of dolls and shamisen (a Japanese musical instrument) balanced with the unforgiving California desert to create a picture of a community struggling to live as prisoners in their adopted or birth country.

One can make many arguments about balancing national security versus individual liberties, a debate that rages today, and I can see both sides. Yet in writer David Conlin McLeod’s book Running From The Sun (see review soon to be posted at www.TheNewBookReview.blogspot.com). set in 1940s America, an America that held prejudice against Japanese-Americans even before Pearl Harbor, I find myself caught up in the intimacy of the human experience and just how we as people complicate concepts such as peace and tolerance.

As the grandfather in Mcleod’s story says, “There will always be war at one time or another so long as there are foolish men trying to take what was never theirs to have. Time for little girls to enjoy being little girls however…there never seems to be time enough. There is too much time for problems and troubles…never enough time to sit and dream and do ordinary things anymore.”

Later in the story, after an incident with a prejudiced woman who calls Yuki “Jap girl” and “stupid Jap,” Mcleod’s heroine, Yukiko “Yuki” Yashida, sobs, “Why is everyone so changed now?” Her grandfather replies, “People haven’t changed, Yuki. You’re just beginning to notice what has always been.”

Yukiko, ten when the story begins, cuts through the official debates and arguments with a child’s simple yet complex point of view. The fictional Yukiko and her family as well as the Japanese community of Bainbridge Island, Washington, endure the austerity, heat and isolation of life in Manzanar, where they are relocated. As a visitor to Manzanar, I could picture dozens of children like Yukiko and her childhood friends—the Tanaka sisters and their little brothers Akira and Kozo, the orphan Kumiko and handsome self-confident Makato Soto—playing, doing chores or attending school in the dryness of the desert.

The remembrance of Pearl Harbor will no doubt invade my body and heart when I visit the U.S.S. Arizona memorial. Yet at Manzanar, a different sort of sensibility gripped me. I have not visited Minidoka War Relocation Center in Idaho, where Yuki along with her family and friends are relocated later in the book, but I am certain I would experience similar questioning thoughts and outrage. Yet at Manzanar I watched a 1980s video of President Ronald Reagan apologize for Executive Order 9066. The hope kindled inside me that the legacy (Densho in Japanese) of Manzanar will remind people that few of us are exempt from prejudice and distrust. As Yuki says, “The Japanese had a history of violence just as widespread as any other culture.” Yet good can come from adversity. We can all recognize that, as shopkeeper Mr. Matsu says, “Why hate at all? Makes no sense to hate anyone for wanting to live here and be American.” This is not politically correct talk. It is simple common sense. It is also common sense that, as Anne Frank said, people are really good at heart.

Yuki muses after the Pearl Harbor attack, “While it can be said that war oftentimes brings out the worst in people, I think it is fair to say that when the chips are down, there are still people compassionate enough and strong enough to see good prevail.”

Yuki’s philosopher and farmer father agrees: “People are angry with the Japanese that bombed Pearl Harbor, not with us. They just don’t know it yet…You can make it harder for them to hate us. When they call you horrible things, you let the words fly away with the wind and you smile. You be more polite and cheerful than the mean people. You stay bright and smart. You say ‘good day’ and ‘good afternoon’ and keep your manners.”

At Manzanar, I saw the U.S. military uniforms worn by relocated Japanese-Americans and read the stories of Japanese-American soldiers who fought in World War II, who left the darkness of the relocation centers to sacrifice their own safety on the battlefields of the European and Pacific theaters. These soldiers are represented in Makato and Akira, who fight in Mcleod’s novel for the 442nd “Go for Broke” Battalion much as African-Americans fought in World War II for a country that still denied them equal rights.

“The 442nd Regimental Combat Team was the most decorated unit for its size and length of service, in the entire history of the U.S. Military. The 4,000 men who initially came in April 1943 had to be replaced nearly 3.5 times. In total, about 14,000 men served, ultimately earning 9,486 Purple Hearts , 21 Medals of Honor and an unprecedented eight Presidential Unit Citations.”—Go For Broke National Education Center, http://www.goforbroke.org/history/history_historical_veterans_442nd.asp

These impressive numbers remind me of the number tag I took from an interactive exhibit at Manzanar. I matched the tag to a coat that belonged to one of the families at Manzanar. The tag had an ID number for the family. In Mcleod’s novel, Yuki and her parents are designated “Family 0034”. While, as some writers have stated, Japanese war relocation centers were not at all like Nazi concentration camps, there is no doubt of the mass distress that was nevertheless caused by wartime policies. As much as we remember the names of the soldiers who died at Pearl Harbor, as much as we remember the bravery in the battles of Word War II, we need to remember the Japanese-American families distrusted by a government and a nation. As we support our troops, we detest the sadness and confusion that war can bring.

One of my favorite books is still Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes (http://www.amazon.com/Sadako-thousand-paper-cranes-Eleanor/dp/0698118022). On this anniversary of Pearl Harbor, the quote on the statue of young Sadako Sasaki, who died of leukemia and radiation sickness, sums up the gravitas of the occasion and the plea of David Conlin Mcleod’s book: This is our cry. This is our prayer. Peace in the world.

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Carolyn Howard-Johnson wrote the foreword for Eric Dinyer's book of patriotic quotations, Support Our Troops, published by Andrews McMeel. Part of the proceeds for the book benefit Fisher House. Her chapbook of poetry won the Military Writers Society of America's award of excellence. Find it at http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1599240173/

1 comment:

The Vampire, David said...

As the author of "Running from the Sun", it is very rewarding to see people making such personal connections to my work. It is also rewarding to know that my historical research is vilified, confirmed, and now made relevent to these times.

The connections we make with the past with our own present (re: race relations, ethnicity, nationalism) shouldn't be lost. History does repeat itself. I can only hope that we can learn from the lessons history can teach us.