The Journal of Ben Uchida, Citizen 13559: Mirror Lake Internment Camp, California, 1942, Barry Denenberg, 1999.
I trash on Barry Denenberg a lot because I don’t care for his characterizations of young female characters, and also because I tend to get frustrated with “old white man writes young women and characters of colour.” This falls into the latter category, and I wish so much that Scholastic had come up with an actual Japanese author—notably, Scholastic Canada’s similar book managed to do it with Torn Apart, The Diary of Mary Kobayashi, which is an internment diary about a Japanese-Canadian girl, and which actually is written by Susan Aihoshi, and is a significantly better book.
But enough about what I had wished this book could have been and let’s get on to what it actually is, which is one of the very few My Name is America books that I actually enjoyed and could probably be enjoyed by a twelve-year-old boy. Probably because it has a healthy dose of actual humorous entertainment value, unlike most of the other books, and unlike most of Barry Denenberg’s other books.
Ben Uchida is twelve years old, and in April of 1942 he and his family are getting ready to leave their home. They have no more stuff left, every last stick of it has been sold. A couple of weeks before Christmas in 1941, as everyone knows, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, scaring the crap out of America. That night his parents burn all of their Japanese things—the letters from their grandparents in Japan, their books, their records, their newspapers, their photo albums, his sister Naomi’s Japanese dolls, every last thing. But Ben’s parents won’t let him stay home from school, so he goes Monday morning to find that everyone is staring at him like he’s a freakshow.
That evening two men from the FBI turn up at Ben’s house to take his father away for questioning based on his membership in the Japanese Businessmen’s Association and he is in the highly dangerous profession of, uh, optometrist. They ransack the house and take Ben’s father with them, and everyone acts like it’s no big thing, except for Ben, who is internally freaking the fuck out because he has no idea what the hell is going on.
As the weeks go by the news get worse and worse, and finally they learn that they’re to be evacuated. “[My mother] just looked at me like she was expecting me to say ‘Oh, well, I’ll just run up to my room and finish my homework so I won’t be late for the evacuation.’” A big part of this book is how completely insane the entire concept of internment sounds to a kid who has no idea what the hell is going on, and the confusion is palpable. Naomi, Ben’s older sister, is frantic and keeps telling anyone who will listen that it’s a violation of their civil rights as Americans, but who is going to listen to a 14-year-old girl? No one—exactly right.
The government freezes their bank accounts, so there’s no way for the Uchidas to access their money. They’re forced to sell all their belongings for disgustingly paltry amounts to whites who are taking blatant advantage of them. “Mrs. Watanabe was so insulted by how little they offered that she took every glass and dish in the house and threw them against the living room wall until the floor was covered with broken bits and pieces. She even smashed all the fine dishes she got when she was married. She told Mama she would rather destroy everything she owned than let those vultures have it. The government man went running out of Mrs. Watanabe’s house yelling that she was a crazy woman. Mrs. Watanabe yelled right back, asking him who was crazier: her for smashing everything or him for thinking she would sell it for $11?”
Weirdly, one of Ben’s classmates, Charles, thinks the whole thing is going to be loads of fun and exactly like camping in the woods. However, Charles is Ben’s least favourite person and a bit of a nutbag, so nobody is buying that crap. The Uchidas field threatening phone calls from people who tell them they’ll set the house on fire if they don’t leave soon, but hey, luckily enough, they are. How much fun.
They’re all shoveled onto a train with several hundred other people, and they’re seated next to a man and a woman with a little boy, all talking very very fast in Japanese, which Ben does not speak. So his mom tells him that the man’s wife had gone to Japan for a visit with their only daughter, and they were headed back when Japan attacked—so they had to turn back, and now the family has no idea where the other half is.
“Where the other half” turns out to be is Mirror Lake, California, which is a nothing, empty area with a bunch of barracks. (For the record, there is a Mirror Lake in California, but it’s just a lake in Yosemite Park, and the fictional Mirror Lake is probably better comparable to Tule Lake, which was in northern California and where Pat Morita and George Takei were held as children. It primarily held people from the northern California and Pacific Northwest states, rather than Manzanar, which is more famous, but drew from the Los Angeles area.) Anyway, there is nothing but barracks and watchtowers and electric fence and soldiers with machine guns, and the Uchidas are assigned to a little tar-paper shack that they have to share with the other family they saw on the train—the man and woman and little boy.
Naomi and Ben run into another teenage boy, Mike Masuda, who shows them the administration building and where to get some straw to sleep on. (Straw!!!!) There’s nothing like furniture or anything else in the apartments, no signposts or anything to actually direct people to their homes, and it’s so hot that a lot o the elderly women are fainting from the heat. How lovely.
Mr. Tashima, the man on the train and their new apartment-mate, is a carpenter and builds them a set of table and chairs. His sister, whom the kids call Aunt Mitsuko, befriends Ben’s mother quickly, so they’re much better off than some of the other families. Uh, as much as you can really say that when they’re being forcibly detained.
Mike tells Ben that they’re going to start up a baseball league and Mike’s going to pitch. A couple fo the other guys are quite good—Ken Okada, Ben mentions in particular as being a good hitter. The dust gets absolutely everywhere, though, which tends to muck up their practices as well as fouling up their crappy little barracks and driving Ben’s mom and Mitsoku absolutely insane.
The soldiers watch their ball games, and Mr. Tashima gets named a block manager, so for a hot second it seems like things are not as horrible as they were before, especially since now they have a table to sit at (again, thanks, Mr. Tashima). There’s a Fourth of July celebration, which makes Naomi particularly angry, and includes a speech from their (white) camp director on what a glorious opportunity it is to stay in a damn prison camp. “It was inspiring speech. I was inspired to think of different ways I could kill myself so I didn’t have to listen to it.” Truer words, etc.
Much to Ben’s horror, they have to start school there as well, in the middle of July. There are no blackboards and no books and nowhere for everyone to sit, so it’s pretty much just their teacher standing at the front of the class trying to lecture sixty bored, frustrated seventh-graders. Ben’s best friend from home, Robbie, keeps sending him letters and postcards that Ben doesn’t really have the heart to answer, since I imagine it must be hard to drum up interest in school three hundred miles away.
They get a letter from their father—finally—but half of it’s crossed out and the other half doesn’t sound at all like their father. Ben isn’t sure he’ll come back at all, ever. Which is understandable, yes, but probably not an awesome opinion to voice to his mom and sister.
There’s also a short interlude about baseball, both the actual Dodgers and their camp baseball games, but I know nothing about baseball and can’t really be bothered to care that much.
Anyway, Ben’s mom and Mitsuko bond on how they were both picture brides—arranged marriages where the couple had only pictures of one another, and Mitsoku’s husband-to-be had lied and told her he was president of the railroad, which he was not, shockingly. This entire detail sounds like “I have some facts about Japanese-Americans to shoehorn in here.”
In August, Ben and Mike and Kenny head down to see a movie for a dime, but Mike says it’s stupid and goes home. But when Ben leaves, he spots Mike talking to Mr. Shibutani, a creepy guy who spends his time drinking and smoking cigars with his creepster friends, and then he and Mike shake hands and laughing. Ben asks Mike what that was all about, and Mike says he doesn’t even know a Mr. Shibutani and has no idea what Ben is talking about. Suspicious.
In the fall someone sneaks into the school during the night and writes “PRISON SCHOOL” in red paint all over the walls, which makes the prison guards just lose their minds. Who can blame them? (The vandalizers, that is, not the prison guards.) But other than that, there’s nothing going on and Ben is miserable having to wait in line for everything, constantly, everywhere. His mother gets upset with him for not showering, but both Ben and Naomi are sick of waiting in line for every last little stupid thing. Everything about this sounds inhumanely miserable.
In October Ken tells Ben that he’s found a place where they can spy on the Camp Fire Girls while they’re preparing for their skit in the event they might change clothes there, which sounds pretty realistic for twelve-year-olds. But when Ben wants to tell Mike and bring him along, Kenny puts his foot down—pretty strange for such an easygoing, friendly guy, but he says he just doesn’t trust Mike any more.
The reasoning for all this and Mike’s bizarre behaviour becomes pretty clear in a couple of weeks. (This is a baseball section but I stuck it out, because it’s plot-related, I suppose.) During their championship game against a different block team, Ben’s team is up 5-4 and they’re in the bottom of the ninth. Mike has been pitching weird all day, and he keeps pitching all over the place, hurrying his pitches, throwing wherever. And then it hits Ben that Mike doesn’t care if they win or lose—he’s been conspiring with Shibutani to throw the game. He walks in the losing run and Kenny clobbers him so badly that Mike’s right eye closes up. This effectively ends Mike’s popularity in the camp, and everyone starts calling him akuto, which because there is no glossary in this book I had to look up online and apparently translates to something along the lines of “scoundrel” or “villain.”
And then things really start going downhill, when Mr. Watanabe, one of their neighbours, is shot by the MPs. Everyone in the camp is frantic with worry, and Mr. Tashima hears that there’s a plot to burn down the administration building in retaliation. The review board declares that Mr. Watanabe was threatening the guard and the MP acted in self-defense—the MP is charged with misuse of property and had to pay a fifty-cent fine for the bullets. A riot nearly breaks out after this is announced (obviously), but there’s nothing they can do.
Just after Christmas that year, they receive a letter from their father saying he’ll be arriving soon after his interviews with the authorities are over. But when he does, it’s like he doesn’t know who any of them are—doesn’t hug them, doesn’t act like he even recognizes them. He’s ill—too ill to even get out of bed—and when he recovers the only thing he does is play Go. He doesn’t read or talk to any of them, but just plays Go or sits outside, staring into space. God, this entire thing is so depressing I could cry.
Mr. Tashima finally gets a letter from his wife and daughter—they’re safe and staying in Hiroshima.
That February the US government sends out questionnaires for every interned American to answer, and announces they’ll be accepting volunteers for an all-Japanese-American combat squad. This doesn’t seem particularly enjoyable to all the Japanese in the camp, who keep wondering why they should fight for a country who’s arrested them without cause and detained them without a trial?
The questionnaire asks if they’ll be willing to serve in the armed forces wherever ordered, and whether they will swear unqualified allegiance to America and forswear any allegiance to Japan. But because nobody knows what will happen to them by answering “yes” or “no,” no one knows what to do, including Ben.
In the epilogue, we learn that Mr. Tashima’s wife and daughter were killed during the attack on Hiroshima. Mr. Tashima and his remaining family move to Chicago. Mike is killed while attempting to rob a bank. The Uchidas return to San Francisco to find their house burned down, and Mr. Uchida dies shortly after in 1945. Naomi married a white man and moves to Denver, and Ben never married, but became a beloved uncle to his best friend Robbie’s kids and his nephews in Denver.
Rating: B. I’m so conflicted. Because if the purpose of this book is to get kids (specifically, boys) into learning more about a really sad period of American history, it’s quite successful. It’s funny and engaging on a distressing topic without crossing over into disrespectful. But I would love to see more authors of colour targeting children’s and YA works in general within the publishing industry. Because between 1999 and now, not a lot has changed, which is a shame for sure. The characters are realistic (well, the few young people) and the story moves along at a good clip. I can live with a B for this one.