It may shock some young readers (and even some adults) to discover that Canada’s history includes a period during which the government branded thousands of citizens “enemy aliens” and sent them to internment camps. The greatest number of innocent detainees were Japanese Canadians, approximately 22,000 of whom (many of them women and children) were forced from their homes between 1942 and 1949. Two new books explore this dark chapter, one a non-fiction account and the other a fictional diary.
In Torn Apart, the latest in Scholastic’s Dear Canada series, Mary Kobayashi relates a story that begins on May 24, 1941, her twelfth birthday. Although the novel’s title implies that the diary focuses mainly on her experience during the internment, Mary doesn’t leave Vancouver for B.C.’s New Denver camp until October 1942, about two-thirds of the way through the book. Before then, she and her family endure other indignities: their civil rights are taken away, employment terminated, property seized, and lives turned upside down.
Toronto author Susan Aihoshi draws on family recollections and meticulous research to sketch out Mary’s story. At first, her diary describes mundane activities such as playing field hockey, attending Girl Guide meetings, participating in Japanese traditions like Girls’ Day, and attending games played by the Japanese-Canadian baseball team, Asahi. Mary is relatively unconcerned about the war going on in faraway Europe; the first mention of the conflict occurs in the middle of a description of a tennis match. Unfortunately, Mary’s tone doesn’t alter a great deal even as the war begins to impinge on her life. Statements such as “the Japanese have taken Hong Kong!” have the same emphasis as “Papa gave us a whole dollar to spend!”
As the story progresses, Aihoshi is careful to fold fact into Mary’s narrative, but the effect is less engaging when she tries to include too much historical detail. Mary is most believable and sympathetic when describing personal events, such as the devastating news of her grandfather’s death at a work camp: “Spent the last two days crying my eyes out…. No one ever said how much it hurts when someone you love is gone forever.” She is less convincing when reiterating facts she’s read or overheard.
Overall, however, Aihoshi has done an admirable job of using the believable, detailed perpective of a victim to describe this period in Canada’s history.
The factual basis behind Mary’s story is more fully explored in the comprehensive volume Righting Canada’s Wrongs: Japanese Canadian Internment in the Second World War, the first in a planned series from Formac Lorimer chronicling human-rights violations perpetrated against various ethnic groups in Canada. Authors Pamela Hickman and Masako Fukawa skilfully follow the story of the Japanese in Canada, from the first wave of immigrants in 1877 through the internment years and the fight for redress. Arresting images dominate the pages, mixing family photographs, posters, museum artifacts, and news archives to create a vivid scrapbook, which also contains the recollections of five internment survivors. Their accounts, peppered generously throughout the book, bring to life the imagery and facts that might otherwise seem impersonal.
The first-hand accounts also make connections that younger readers may readily understand and sympathize with. For example, former internment detainee Mary Ohara says that, after Pearl Harbor, “[M]y friends looked away when I greeted them. They looked embarrassed. I soon learned that their parents had told them that they were not to socialize with the ‘Japanese enemy.’” The book also acknowledges that the feelings of children are sometimes different from those of adults, who may better understand the bigger picture. Another detainee admits leaving home for the camp “was so exciting. I guess I was caught up by the thrill of a new adventure.”
Along with personal testimonies and copious imagery, there is a lot to read and absorb here. The chronology is clear, however, and helped by large headings, captions, and occasional pull quotes. The display copy helps make insightful associations. Alongside a photo of a smiling girl and her piano is the caption, “Many treasures were looted from empty homes.” A turn of the page shows the tents at Slocan, “Camp Hell-Hole,” and the cramped quarters of a typical shack where this girl, minus her piano, may have ended up.
Righting Canada’s Wrongs is a fitting tribute to the resilience of the Japanese Canadians who endured unconscionable discrimination. The book proves an essential history lesson for a generation that may be unaware of this deplorable part of our nation’s past.