'Red Kimono' looks at internment camps in U.S.

'Red Kimono' looks at internment camps in U.S.

Jan Morrill has written a beautiful debut novel, "The Red Kimono," which is a look at the Japanese internment camps in the United States after the Pearl Harbor attack in World War II.

In this historical fiction novel (published by the University of Arkansas Press), Morrill explores racism, loyalty, independence, cultural differences, grief and love. It is a powerful story told in the voices of three adolescents, two Japanese-American and one African-American.

Life was pretty normal for 9-year-old Sachiko in the early 1940s in Berkeley, Calif. She and her 17-year-old brother, Nobu, lived with their parents in a nice neighborhood in a house where everyone in the family had their own room.

Her mother followed a lot of Japanese traditions from her homeland, but her papa seemed to understand her better, how she longed to be more like the girls in her class. Her biggest problems were not wanting to practice her Japanese dancing, or children teasing her about her "slanted eyes."

But soon that all changes, after Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. The first worry of her parents is the safety of her oldest brother, Taro, who is in Hawaii. Once they discover he is alive, her parents, Nobu and Sachiko, try to prepare to celebrate Christmas, even though life becomes more and more difficult for Japanese-Americans in their Berkeley neighborhood. Papa even loses his job, and Nobu struggles not to get into fights over the bullying he's facing at school because he resembles the Pearl Harbor attackers.

Life changes forever right before Christmas when Papa takes Sachiko to the park, and he's severely beaten by three boys — two white and one black — because he's Japanese. Terrence knows what it's like to be treated differently just because of the color of his skin. Before his daddy was serving in the military in Hawaii, they had faced racism around their own neighborhood, being refused service at certain businesses.

But on this one fateful morning, Terrence, who is a classmate and friend of Nobu's, doesn't care about anything but getting back at the Japanese. He received word that his father had been killed at Pearl Harbor. He's grieving; he's angry; and he's looking for anything to relieve his emotions. When his friends suggest beating up a "Jap," he doesn't hesitate.

Turns out the man they beat, so badly that he goes into a coma, is the father of his friend, Nobu. If Terrence would have known that before he threw a punch, would he have run away? Found someone else? Or gone home and hugged his mama instead?

After this incident, Morrill explores how life changes for Terrence, Nobu and Sachiko. Nobu and Sachiko are sent with their mother to an internment camp for "relocation." Terrence is in jail and waiting for his trial. The rest of the novel, expertly alternating among the three characters sharing their view of the world, covers the next two years of their lives while also covering actual events in the United States at the time.

Morrill brings the novel to a satisfying ending but also leaves some questions unanswered. This is because, lucky for readers, she's working on a sequel to "The Red Kimono," which will continue the three main characters' stories.

An interesting note about the author and her interest in writing about his time period is that her mother, a Buddhist Japanese-American, was an internee during World War II, while her father, a Southern Baptist, retired from the Air Force. According to her website, "many of her stories reflect memories of growing up in a multicultural, multireligious, multipolitical environment." Before her debut novel, Morrill had several short stories published and was nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

Morrill delivers a fantastic story and more in her debut novel. Readers will shudder at the horrors of living in the internment camps and feel frustration at the racism in the United States during this time. But they will also fall in love with the three main characters and want to find out what happens to them in the sequel.

Margo L. Dill is the author of "Finding My Place: One Girl's Strength at Vicksburg," a middle grade historical fiction novel. She often reviews books as a columnist for "WOW! Women On Writing" e-zine and her blog, "Margo Dill's Read These Books and Use Them" (http://margodill.com/blog/). She lives in St. Louis with her family.

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