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For sixty years, Mary Matsuda Gruenewald chose not to talk about her experiences in the Japanese-American internment camps during the Second World War. Forced into those camps as a confused, na?ve seventeen-year-old, she was unable to comprehend her situation, and until the early twenty-first century was not prepared to explore this region of her personal - and her country's - history. When in her seventies, her children grown, her parents and brother gone, she finally admitted to herself the importance of stepping beyond "the self-imposed barbed-wire fences" (p. x) and telling her story.
Mary Matsuda moved to Puget Sound with her family at the age of two, in 1927. She and her older brother, Yoneichi, aged four, were American citizens by birth. Her parents had emigrated from Japan, but due to complex and unforgiving American immigration laws at the time, they remained Japanese citizens. Life on Vashon Island was "idyllic," (p. 1); her family rented a small strawberry farm which they worked; Mary and her brother attended the local school and church; and all the residents were friendly and warm-hearted. There were only a handful of Japanese on the island, and Mary was one of the few in her schoolhouse, but rarely were any in her family victims of prejudice.
In December 1941, the Matsuda family trembled as they listened to radio broadcasts of the Pearl Harbor bombings. Though their neighbors and friends gathered around them in support, and though they were loyal residents, citizens, and believers in America, they were concerned the government might move against them. They burned all their cultural belongings; all their records, all their dolls, and all their photographs. The only Japanese item they did not burn was her parents' copy of the New Testament. They hoped to prove their loyalty, but on May 16, 1942, they were forced off the island and taken to an internment camp.
The camp, like two others they would also stay at, was small and squalid. Their living quarters consisted of a twenty by twenty-four foot room, shared with a couple they had never met. There were no furnishings, save a hard cot for each; few windows; and only the thinnest walls separating them from the other interns. Under the menacing watch of armed soldiers, they ate lousy meals in a cacophonous mess hall, went to the bathroom in unenclosed, primitive facilities, slept under the glare of a constant searchlight, and dealt with numerous other indignities.
The greatest struggle, however, was psychological. Questions haunted her during her entire experience. Was she going to die? What would happen to her parents if she did? Was she Japanese, a bomber of Pearl Harbor, or American, a supporter of imprisonment? In 1943 every intern received a questionnaire, asking among other things whether they would swear loyalty to the United States. This questionnaire split the camps between those who wished to protest the actions of the government against them, and vote no; and those who wished to be seen as loyal to the United States above all. The Japanese view of a family crumbled under the weight of the questionnaire and camp life in general; children talked back to their parents, they played cards and went dancing, they protested and swore, and their parents began harshly and publicly criticizing them for it. Mary Matsuda agonized over the effect on the older population and wondered what was right. With her world changed and her naivet? shattered, she did not understand any longer what was right or wrong, or true or false, or, put simply, what she should do.
Throughout her time in the camps, she and her family continued making the best of the situation. They made friends, they played go, they gathered shells and went for walks. When Yoneichi was given the opportunity to apply for the draft, he did so, and eventually left to fight in Italy. Mary volunteered for the Army Nurse Corps and trained in Iowa, though the war ended before she would go abroad. Unlike others, her parents maintained their stoic, utterly Japanese view on life despite the camps' hardships. When the war ended, her family returned to the farm in Washington. They re-assimilated into American society, changed but as dedicated as ever to life in America.
Mary Matsuda Gruenewald's moving narrative is a masterpiece of reflection. Her simple yet elegant manner underlies her soft-spoken personality, and her prose is smooth and even. She is a vivid storyteller; her memories come to life under her hand and implant themselves in the reader, as if they were the reader's memories and not her own.
The strength of her work is not in the description as one might expect, however. Instead, it lies in her extraordinary exploration of her own psychology as an intern. She notes, "as I reflect on all that happened, I am reminded of a book, The Trial, by Franz Kafka" (p. x). She compares her experiences to the character in that book, accused of a crime he does not understand. Indeed, the journey through her life feels like Kafka. One can sense the vagueness, the fog, the unknown all around. She asks questions that get no answers, even today after sixty years. She expresses emotions and fears, both rational and irrational, and which all people have known at some point.
She also proves herself extremely adept at drawing upon her Japanese upbringing, and using that to frame her discussion of the camps. She regularly refers to life on Vashon Island before the War, describing how her mother was subordinate but so important to her father, how her brother was to be head of the family and all the responsibilities that entailed, and how she was taught to be a good woman and wife. She sprinkles stories her mother told her, old Japanese myths and legends, throughout her narrative. She tells of the simple joys of going to her favorite restaurant in Seattle's Japantown with her father after an appointment with the optometrist. In essence, her story is supremely personal, an honest and poignant depiction of her life.
While the text overall is an incredible piece, there are a few areas she might have improved. As a reader, one recognizes that much of the dialogue in her story did not occur word for word in actuality. Her manufacture of dialogue is no doubt intended both for readability and to humanize the story. Unfortunately, it comes across as very contrived. One can see how such a conversation may have taken place, but one cannot even begin to imagine two people talking in so forced a fashion.
Another area of concern is repetition. Her six-page conversation with Zola Lenz beginning on page 96 consists entirely of information she has already presented in earlier pages. While the importance of describing this interview to the reader is beyond doubt, she could have done so in a paragraph or two and been just as clear.
Lastly, she strays far beyond just her experiences as a camp intern, instead discussing in detail life after the war. While it provides a great human-interest story, the reader does not need to know about her mother's death, or her brother's thoughts on the war, to learn about life in the internment camps. For that, they are unnecessary, and weaken the overall relevancy of her work. This reader must admit, however, that strength of narrative aside, her story was so compelling he was glad to read about their lives after they returned home.
Mary Matsuda Gruenewald's story is a touching disclosure of her life in the internment camps. Certainly as a historical memoir on an unfairly neglected subject, it is brilliant. Despite a few minor flaws in prose, I highly recommend to this book to anyone, whether historian or no. It is a treasure that readers will long remember and appreciate.