“Thank you for your remark about Gerald [O’Hara] who ‘recognizes that security can never be found apart from the land.’ No one else picked that up; no one seemed to think about it or notice it. And that depressed me . . . . And I felt . . . that I had utterly failed in getting my ideas over.”
—Margaret Mitchell in a letter to Gilbert Govan in 1936,
from The Irish Roots of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind
by David O’Connell
If you have read my previous post, a review of the book Camp Nine by Vivienne Schiffer, you will recognize the above quote from Margaret Mitchell in regard to the underlying theme of her renowned Southern novel Gone With the Wind.
There is a reason I repeat that quote here at the beginning of this review of another book titled The Red Kimono that, like Camp Nine, takes place primarily in the Arkansas Delta, specifically in my native Southeast Arkansas, and on the same subject: the WWII Japanese-American relocation camps.
In this review it is not my primary purpose to review these two books by comparing and contrasting them as I did in an earlier post titled “Bayou Bartholomew: Two Book Reviews.” However, some differences in the two books will be apparent to anyone who reads both of them, especially to anyone who has ever lived in the Arkansas Delta for any length of time. Some of these differences reflect the differences in the backgrounds and perspectives of the authors who wrote them and their goals or purposes in doing so.
The Basic Themes of Each Japanese Camp Book
“You don’t write because you want to say something.
You write because you have something to say.”
—F. Scott Fitzgerald
In my review of Camp Nine, I noted that “my basic aim in writing this review is not to focus on the story or the camp itself. I hope rather to offer a glimpse into the fascinating and often incomprehensible locale in which the story takes place: the Arkansas Delta of the 1940s.”
Likewise, in my review of The Red Kimono “my basic aim . . . is not to focus on the story or the camp itself” but on the people who inhabited it and the effects that incarceration had on their lives and the lives of their descendants.
In so doing, I hope to call attention to the underlying themes of each book so they will neither be overlooked nor ignored as Margaret Mitchell feared for the theme of her own work.
For example, in response to my review of her book Camp Nine, the author Vivienne Schiffer sent me an email on April 12 stating:
“You really nailed everything I was trying to say. Like Margaret Mitchell, I am really gratified (and grateful) that you featured the excerpt where Henry said you can never appreciate your home until you see it through the eyes of strangers. As I was writing the book, it occurred to me that that is really the overwhelming theme of Camp Nine.” (Italics mine; to learn more about this and other themes in Camp Nine, see my previous post titled “Camp Nine: A Book Review with Quotes about the Delta.”)
Seeking to isolate the basic theme of The Red Kimono, I asked the author Jan Morrill to identify it for me. This is what she wrote back to me in an email on May 3:
“The themes in The Red Kimono (fear, racism, bullying, forgiveness) are as relevant today as they were when this story took place seventy years ago. Though the fear surrounding 9/11 certainly reminded me of the fear surrounding Pearl Harbor, almost daily, I see instances of ignorance that cause anger, fear, hatred, etc. with regard to differences in politics, religion, culture, class, etc. The Red Kimono compares the lives of those who choose to remain closed to those who open themselves to a discovery and appreciation of our differences.”
Thus, in these two books about the same place—written from the viewpoints of two young girls, one outside the camp and one inside the camp—what we have is a better insight into the lives of the two groups they represent. One author seeks to portray and thus better understand “[her] home as seen through the eyes of strangers” who are injected against their will into her familiar ancestral land; while the other author seeks to portray and thus explain her people’s loss of home and land and the effects that loss has on her people.
As an Arkansan and a Deltan who has been living in Oklahoma in what I term “thirty-six years of forced labor and exile from the Holy Land,” I relate to both groups: those whose beloved home is disappearing before their very eyes and who are thus forced to abandon it; and those who are living in a land that is not theirs among people who know nothing about their home that is already lost to them. (For example, see my earlier post titled “Yo Recuerdo (I Remember).”)
To me, these twin issues of love and loss are the themes of both of these authors’ stories . . . and mine.
Some Important Differences Between
Camp Nine and The Red Kimono
“In every [person’s] writings, the character of the writer must lie recorded.”
One of the important differences in my review of Camp Nine and this review of The Red Kimono is due to the differences between the authors who wrote the books and, as seen above, their purposes in writing them.
On the inside of the back cover of her book Camp Nine Vivienne Schiffer is identified thusly: “Vivienne Schiffer is a novelist and screenwriter who grew up in Desha County, Arkansas.” She is a native of Rohwer, the location of the WWII Japanese-American relocation camp and the scene of her book. Her mother, an Italian-American born and raised in the Delta, collected and preserved many of the artifacts from the camp on display in the camp museum in McGehee.
On the inside of the back cover of her book The Red Kimono Jan Morrill is identified thusly: “Jan Morrill was born and (mostly) raised in California. Her mother, a Buddhist Japanese American, was an internee during World War II. Her father, a Southern Baptist redhead of Irish descent, retired from the Air Force. Many of Morrill’s stories reflect memories of growing up in a multicultural, multi-religious, multi-political environment. She is currently working on the sequel to The Red Kimono.”
As such, it is natural that each of these two well-qualified authors with direct ties to the camp in Rohwer, Arkansas, wrote about it from different perspectives. Vivienne Schiffer’s story is narrated by Chess Morton, a young Italian-American girl who lives in a small village in the Arkansas Delta and whose life is simple and serene until the camp is built and her entire rural world is forever changed. Jan Morrill’s story is told from the point of view of three young people from California: a nine-year-old Japanese-American girl named Sachiko, her nineteen-year-old brother Nobu, and a teenage black boy named Terrence, each of whom suffers from the effects of their race and the consequences of it.
Thus, the one connection that ties all of these lives together is the Japanese relocation camp in tiny Rohwer, Arkansas, a place with which each of them becomes inextricably entwined in ways that none of them could ever have imagined.
As a result, my review of each book differs.
In my review of Camp Nine, as noted I focused not on the story nor on the camp itself, but on the place in which most of the narrative occurred: the Arkansas Delta of my own youth. I did so by lifting out and arranging by subjects important quotes about several key geographical and cultural features about the Delta: the Mississippi River, Levee System, and Lowlands; Delta Blues Music; Segregation and Southern Social Customs; The Land, Sense of Place, and “Delta Victims.” I concluded by listing links to posts about the Delta on my own blog.
In this review of The Red Kimono I do not follow that pattern of focusing on quotes about the Delta since that is not the area of the author’s personal background and experience, as it was with the author of Camp Nine. Rather I focus on the inhabitants of the camp and the effect of their incarceration on their lives both as individuals and as a people.
A Brief and Insightful Review of The Red Kimono
“Certainly without the history of my family, this story might never have been told. My mother, her family, and her family’s family were Japanese-American internees at Tule Lake, California, Topaz, Utah, and Jerome and Rohwer in Arkansas. From their history came the themes of judgment and isolation.”
—Jan Morrill, Acknowledgments, The Red Kimono
Despite the differences in Vivienne Schiffer’s narrative and Jan Morrill’s narrative, both primarily set in the Arkansas Delta of the 1940s, their historical novels based on the actual events represented and portrayed in this book are of immense importance.
Since Morrill is partially of Japanese descent through her mother who was an internee in one of the Japanese camps, Jan’s unique contribution to the subject of the entire forced Japanese relocation is her knowledgeable and personal portrayal though fictional characters of the terrible wrong that was done to them as a people, as families, and as individuals.
While Vivienne Gould’s narrative is invaluable in presenting an outside view of the effect of the Japanese relocation camps on the homeland and lifestyle of the people of the Arkansas Delta, both white and black, Jan Morrill’s narrative offers an invaluable inside view of what life was like for those who were forced from their own particular American homeland and lifestyle and shipped halfway across the country to be interned within the barbed-wire prisons called relocation camps.
As noted, the combination of these two viewpoints and experiences—complicated by the effects of racial, ethnic, and political tensions with black Americans both on the West Coast and in the Arkansas Delta—makes for a challenging and often tragic cultural conflict, one that is still being dealt with today in all sections of our nation.
It is that conflict that Jan Morrill reveals and addresses in this book based on the experiences of her own people and her own family.
This religious, social, racial, political, and cultural conflict, and Jan Morrill’s contributions to its eventual resolution through patience, understanding, and mutual respect, is made most clearly in the following online review of The Red Kimono:
“Jan Morrill’s The Red Kimono tackles the fear, bitterness and broken lives that arose from the evacuation of Japanese Americans into internment camps during the World War II, drawing upon her mother’s experiences to elevate history to a more intimate level.
“The book opens with the bombing of Pearl Harbor; living in Berkeley, the Kimuras anxiously await news from Hawaii of their eldest son, Taro. In the days that follow, Michio and Sumiko try to make life as normal as possible for their other children, seventeen-year-old Nobu and nine-year-old Sachiko, preaching gaman (patience) and shikata ga nai (acceptance of the current circumstances) even as their own community turns against them. A senseless act of violence sets a chain of events in motion that leads not only to the Kimura family’s internment, but to the incarceration of one of Nobu’s closest friends.
“Morrill uses the viewpoints of three young protagonists to add depth to a period in American history that has been examined many times before; Nobu and Sachi’s experiences are contrasted with that of Terrence, an African American teenager who sought retribution for his father’s death at Pearl Harbor.
“What distinguishes The Red Kimono from other stories of the Nisei [sic] internment is its combination of raw emotional vulnerability and modern relevance. Morrill deftly exploits these dynamics—and the competing themes of race, grief, love and betrayal—in a compelling portrait of the Japanese American experience at the height of America’s ‘Greatest Generation.’”
—Nancy Powell, a freelance writer and technical consultant,
quoted by permission from Shelf-Awareness for Readers
for Tuesday, February 13, 2013,
Links to Author and Book
To visit Jan Morrill’s Web site, click here.
To order a copy of The Red Kimono from Amazon.com, click here.
To order a copy of The Red Kimono from Barnes & Noble, click here.