Hold onto your hats, I have a lot to say about this book. Mostly it is not good. Last week was a great example of the relaunched series. This week is not.
The Fences Between Us: The Diary of Piper Davis, Seattle, Washington, 1941, Kirby Larson, 2010.
This was the first new book in the relaunched series. It is not good. Kirby Larson is a fine author, but her work isn’t really to my taste. Yeah, I read Hattie Big Sky and it just didn’t do it for me. This is a long book, too, maybe the longest of the DA novels at almost 300 pages, but covering only a year and a half, which is fairly short for that much text.
The problem with the book is just the premise. It’s about Piper Davis, the daughter of a pastor to a Japanese Baptist congregation in Seattle, and they follow their congregation when they are interned in a camp. I really, really disagree that this is a story that needs to be told, because the bulk of the story seems to be “White girl feels really bad that her friends and neighbours are incarcerated.” My Name is America managed to do a decent job covering it, as did Dear Canada, but the difference was that both of those stories focused on actual characters who were being wrongly persecuted for their ethnic background. This story doesn’t have that impact, because Piper isn’t at any point incarcerated, and she seems more spoiled than anything else. I just really, really, really, really disliked this book. I will try my best to be fair. But no promises.
Piper is the youngest of three children—her older brother Hank having just enlisted in the (peacetime) Navy in November of 1941, and her older sister Margie is at university studying chemistry. At thirteen, Piper is the baby, and is a bit lonely with her father being busy with his church and Margie being busy with school. Piper is worried about her brother, but not terribly, since after all, they’re at peace and even Hank doesn’t think it’s going to be that exciting. She spends more of her time hanging out with her best friend Trixie and worrying about the boys at school. Mostly one boy, Bud (ugh), who she goes back and forth between being interested in and being disgusted with.
When Pearl Harbor is attacked, Piper is terrified for her brother and for herself, but doesn’t realize that this is going to be pretty awful for the local Japanese population until she’s walking to school and sees a Japanese classmate of hers, Betty Sato, being yelled at by a group of boys. Someone spits on her, and Piper does nothing. Half of the men in her father’s congregation are arrested, including the husband of their housekeeper, Mrs. Harada. Trixie doesn’t really understand why Piper is so upset, and another one of the girls at school, Debbie Sue, keeps needling Piper about her father, insinuating that he must have something to do with the attack given his ties to the Japanese community.
Margie gets engaged to her boyfriend, who enlists in the army, and all the while their family just frets about Hank and Piper barely even gives a thought to her Japanese neighbours. When they finally hear that Hank is okay, Piper thinks everything is safe again, even though the government is taking away all of the Japanese-owned cameras and radios. But like everything, she shrugs this off all “oh, that’s silly,” but there is no depth there. I just really, really dislike this strategy of “white girl is barely involved, sounds like a good narrator for a book about Japanese incarceration!” She’s more worried about what’s going on at the New Year’s Eve party.
On Sunday she sees Betty at church. “’You can’t imagine what it’s like to see the FBI take your dad away. We don’t even know where they took him.’ I patted her arm. ‘It’ll be okay. Pop will find him.’ Betty looked straight at me. ‘Your father may be able to find him. But it won’t be okay. Nothing is okay.’” I want to read a book about Betty. She sounds like a more solid narrator. If anything, she sounds less flighty. But at school, she “loses her nerve,” and doesn’t ask Betty to sit with her and her friends. So Piper sits with her sort-of boyfriend, Bud, and Trixie, and Betty sits by herself because no one will sit with her.
In February, most of the men in the congregation are sent off to “this place in Montana,” as Piper so eloquently terms it. And while she’s aware that the newspaper is campaigning for moving all the Japanese to camps, and that Betty’s family is being torn apart, she’s still more worried about who Bud is taking to the Valentine’s Day dance. But instead of going to that, she attends her sister’s wedding in the living room, and then Margie goes to work in a factory, so it’s fair to say her family has more things to worry about than Piper’s stupid love life.
I also really don’t care for how Piper and Betty’s friendship develops—they go from seeing each other at church and school but not really talking, to chatting a few times, to bumping into each other at the drugstore and somehow going from talking about The Shadow and candy bars and makeup, to their deepest fondest wildest hopes and dreams. I see. This is pretty awkward. But then again we bounce back to Piper and Bud being “official” in March, and ugh, I just don’t care. This entire subplot is boring to me. I get that we’re driving towards a conclusion of “sometimes, the people you date as a teenager turn out to be jerks all along,” but do we really need that shoehorned into this plot? We do not.
Betty has an older brother, Jim, who’s Hank’s age, and Piper looks up to him as a big-brother figure. So she doesn’t mind seeing him when she’s hanging out with Betty at church, but still Piper is pretty far removed from everything—even when she’s becoming real friends with the Japanese kids at her church. They begin evacuating Japanese residents from Bainbridge Island, and Piper muses “When it’s time to leave, they can only take what they can carry. What would I take, if it were me? What would I choose? How would I choose?” Well, I’m pretty sure that there were 13-year-old girls being forced to do just that, so let’s read a story about them.
And then at the end of April, while Piper and Betty are walking through Japantown, they see the first of the signs advising that the rest of the Japanese are going to be forced out. Betty pelts back home, and Piper just doesn’t know what to do, so just stands there awkwardly. Since Piper’s hobby is photography, she spends an awful lot of time photographing her friends and neighbours and the stuff they’re storing in the basement of the church and their ID tags. And then on the first of May, they’re packed off onto buses and off. But Piper gets to go home to her comfortable home, and the worst deprivation they experience is sugar and gas rationing. Her dad’s entire congregation is gone, so they have nothing to do with themselves on Sundays.
They go to see the Satos and their other neighbours in their temporary accommodations, which are obviously shitty, shitty barracks slapped together in about two minutes. But Piper gets to go home to her nice clean washroom and cozy bedroom, and one of their neighbours, Mrs. Tokita, is literally living in what used to be a horse stall. Piper befriends an elderly couple, the Matsuis, for no real reason other than the plot needed an “elderly wistful artist man” character. And again, while Piper is going to a party for the end of seventh grade with her friends, Betty is miserable and sick from the food in the camps. It is really hard to take Piper’s problems seriously. As if it wasn’t hard enough to take a 13-year-old’s “love problems” seriously, this is not helping. Betty hears that they’re going to start shipping the Japanese out to permanent camps; Piper goes to a Fourth of July picnic with Bud’s family and has “the nicest day I can remember in a long, long time.” Like, I get the juxtaposition, I just think it’s totally useless.
The people from the church are almost all being sent to Minidoka in Idaho, and Piper’s dad works nonstop trying to get as much leniency as he can from the authorities. Betty and her family leave near the end of August, but Piper is just so super-double-triple thrilled and excited to be starting eighth grade it barely makes a dent. That is, until her dad drops the bombshell on her that they will be moving to Minidoka, so he can continue to minister to his congregation. Piper, obviously, freaks the hell out, and starts screaming that her father doesn’t care about her, all he cares about are the Japanese, and he clearly doesn’t care that he’s ruining her life.
I get it. I understand the point here, that Piper is selfish and really still a child and doesn’t have the understanding required to be empathetic, but I still dislike it. Piper tries to lobby for her dad allowing her to stay in Seattle, with her friend, or with Margie (who’s staying behind to keep the house and keep working in the factory), but no dice. Then on top of things, Bud breaks up with her because she’s moving away, and also because he’s a jerk.
So then they finally relocate, 177 pages into the book. The bulk of the book is already gone! What the hell? Anyway, they find it really hard to find someone who will even rent to them in Idaho, since the rest of the white people in the town are evil bigots, because of course they are. Piper and her dad get to stay in the staff apartments until they can find a “nice place” to stay, so sure: here is the story of Japanese incarceration, right here. Of course. The extent of the persecution that Piper and her father face is limited to a nasty guy who stands outside of their rented house staring, and a woman who refuses to serve them at a diner. In the meantime, Jim goes to work for a local farmer, and the farmer’s sons beat him up. So.
They throw a Halloween party for the camp children, Piper doesn’t get any letters from Trixie, the place is full of rattlesnakes and dirt, etc. etc., this is dull. Without Piper living in the camp, it lacks resonance, and it lacks the feeling of overwhelming, overarching hopelessness present in other books. Piper writes that she feels guilty being all snug and cozy in their house when Betty and Jim and everyone else is shivering in what are essentially tarpaper shacks, but what else can she possibly do?
Go to school, for one thing. “It’s kind of funny. At Washington Junior, I saw mostly white faces. Here, at the camp school, there are only three of us—me and the principal’s sons. It made me feel kind of itchy in my own skin. I wished I could be like a snake and shed it, to look more like anyone else. I wonder if that’s what Betty felt like sometimes, back in Seattle.” You think? Again: I get the concept, I just really don’t think this is a terrifically effective way of going about it.
Jim makes Piper a little shelf for her knickknacks, and Betty is all “duh, you moron, he likes you” and Piper is like “HE IS???” I say again: you think????? God. But she tells him that she doesn’t “like him like him,” grade-school style (well, I suppose she is still in grade school, though). I dislike how this book shies away from the interracial relationship angle, although in fairness the weird part might be that Jim is seventeen or eighteen and Piper is thirteen. But still: Piper definitely dates, just not Japanese guys. I see.
In school in December, their (white) teacher makes a huge deal out of the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, and how relocation was a great thing, and they all just stare at her, because obviously. No one responds, not even Piper, and she writes “One small victory in this crummy war.” I see. “There’s nothing good about Christmas Eve in Twin Falls. None of our family is here. Our stockings are in Seattle. And Pop and I tried to make meatballs and ended up eating fried egg sandwiches. Ho ho ho.” But Margie does come to visit them for Christmas Day, and brings a ton of candy and nuts for all the camp children, so maybe Piper can pipe down and think about all the people who are there in camps, separated from their loved ones by force, and who had to sell their homes and possessions for barely anything thanks to the U.S. government.
At the end of January the camp announces that the army is going to be forming an all-Japanese all-volunteer unit (that will eventually become the 442nd “Go for Broke” regiment), and Betty starts fretting that Jim is going to want to join. He tells her that he won’t, he’s just interested, but he won’t do anything while their dad is still gone. This is a lie, of course, because he enlists in February. Weirdly, Piper doesn’t commiserate at all with Betty about how terrible it is to have a brother enlist and go away, which seems like a pretty natural topic of discussion.
Piper’s dad has been working nonstop all this time to try and reunite the men with their families in the camps, and finally manages to bring Mr. Sato and Mr. Harada, among others, back to the camp. Mr. Sato gets to spend some time with his son before he ships out, and Betty passes the time by making Jim a senninbari, or a thousand-person belt—a belt with a thousand stitches, each by a different person, to protect the wearer. Piper makes him a photo album of his family and his friends to take with him, and gives it to him just before photographing the trucks as he leaves Minidoka.
There’s a cheesy ending, as well—“Pop…helped me learn the most important thing of all. He made me realize that even if we can’t do much about the fences that get built around people, when fences get built between people, it’s our job to tear them down.” IN the epilogue, Piper becomes a photographer and marries an artist, Betty ends up marrying Hank who becomes a pastor for another Japanese Baptist church, and Jim dies terribly in France in 1944 at the age of nineteen.
Rating: D. Honestly, this is the book that turned me off the entire relaunched series. I hate the concept that we need a white girl narrator in a book about Japanese incarceration, and Piper is a pretty terrible narrator at best. Although there’s some lip service to the idea of “Oh, Piper learns so much” but really, she doesn’t, because at the end of the book she’s almost as vapid as she is in the beginning. She doesn’t truly grow as a character, and as is my complaint with Early Sunday Morning, the supporting characters are more interesting anyhow! I would much rather read a book about Betty Sato’s story than Piper’s, to be honest.
All in all, this is a really disappointing entry in what otherwise is a great series.