This is one of my least favourite Dear Americas, but I’ll plug through it as it’s short.
Book: Early Sunday Morning: The Pearl Harbor Diary of Amber Billows, Hawaii, 1941.
This is another Barry Denenberg, because I figured while I was doing World War Two I may as well hit another one of the lowlights. His voice is so similar that almost all of his female characters end up sounding very similar, which bugs me a lot, but whatever.
Amber’s father is a newspaper reporter who has to move his family around quite a bit, though it’s never fully explained why he has to move so much. But later we learn that Amber is twelve and has only lived in four places, which doesn’t seem to be that extreme, though I imagine your average 12-year-old probably feels differently.
Amber’s parents throw a lot of dinner parties that serve as a nice way to get some exposition to us in the way of adults talking about current events and the trend of isolationism in American politics prior to the Pearl Harbor attack. Fair enough, I suppose there really isn’t a neat way to do that. Because this is one of the books set more recently, we do get some interesting details on air travel in 1941, with the jealousy-inducing detail that dinner is served in an actual lounge with real china and crystal tableware. There’s something to think about next time you board a flight in cattle-class and have to eat a $19 sandwich that tastes like it may actually be from 1941.
When Amber starts school, she meets a Japanese girl in her grade named Kame Arata, and Kame invites her over to eat dinner with the family. Kame’s family is “traditionally Japanese,” which apparently means they eat tofu with chopsticks, decorate their house with samurai swords, play the samisen and sing Japanese songs after dinner, and Kame’s mother never speaks and favours the boys. Well, that’s certainly not stereotypical at all, then! Kame is apparently pretty popular at school, so Amber tags along with her.
Kame sounds like a much more interesting character than Amber, to be honest.
Amber’s dad befriends the owner of a local bookstore, which I’m on board with, and plays golf with a local lieutenant and ends up inviting them both to Thanksgiving dinner. Unfortunately, the lieutenant turns out to be a total dickhead who spends the meal bloviating about how there’s no danger from Japan as “a second-rate country with a third-rate military” and “their aviators had such poor vision, they couldn’t even fly their airplanes properly.” Now, I understand the point being driven at here is that plenty of people didn’t see Japan as a threat even when it was fairly obvious, but this is somewhat ham-fisted, especially when he goes on calling them “Buddha-heads.” We get it, he’s racist, and I get that this is a kids’ book, but all right.
Mr. Poole, the bookstore owner, tells the lieutenant he doesn’t know anything and the Hawaiian Japanese are just as American as they are, and generally represents the non-xenophobic contingent.
The following week, of course, is the attack on Pearl Harbor. Amber and her brother hunker down at home while her mother, who is a nurse, goes to the hospital to help out. When her mom comes home she’s spattered with blood, and the next day Amber goes with her to help and ends up organizing the blood donors. They run out of sterile equipment and have to sterilize empty pop bottles, but quite frankly that’s the least of their worries when the hospital is packed with dead and dying men.
The lieutenant from Thanksgiving, having lost both his in an explosion, is wracked with an infection and can’t stop screaming about where his men are and what’s happened to them.
They build a bomb shelter in their yard, and go to visit Kame the following week. She tells Amber about how MPs came to investigate her family and took her father away for questioning, and how her mother doesn’t speak enough English to even talk on the phone, and how Kame is afraid to go anywhere at all.
For Christmas, Kame and her aunt come to Amber’s house for dinner, and Amber learns that Kame has gone to live with her aunts since her mother won’t speak to her anymore. At dinner that evening, Amber’s father announces that the Billows family will be moving again. Tomorrow.
Rating: C-. I didn’t like this one at all. Frankly, I was much more interested in Kame and would much rather have read a book about her. If nothing else, I think it would have been a much more effective book if the narrator had been a Hawaii native or at least lived there for more than a month—I think it lessened the impact. You don’t get a very good sense of Amber, since it’s so short, and I think that detracts from the general message. Even the actual attack on Pearl Harbor doesn’t have a lot of emotional impact. Not my favourite, but I’ll give it a middling rating because it’s not egregiously awful.