In the novel All the Way Home by Ann Tatlock, Augie O’Shaughnessy‘s father has died by his own hand in the 1930s. Her mother takes what money they have left and moves her family in with her reluctant brother and his family. But Augie’s mother checks out and seeks respite in alcohol. Augie’s uncle is short-tempered and harsh; her aunt is a little more caring, but busy and distracted. Augie is mostly left to herself.
One day Augie wanders down to a park and meets a Japanese girl named Sunny, who invites Augie home. Augie becomes close with the whole kind and loving Yamagata family, spending more time with them than her own family. She even comes to consider herself Japanese.
Then Japan bombs Pearl Harbor, and the Yamagatas are sent away to an internment camp.
And Augie’s brother comes home from a Japanese prisoner of war camp and is never the same.
Fast forward twenty years, and Augie is a journalist specializing in civil rights stories. She has been asked to travel to Carver, Mississippi, to find out why no Negros have registered to vote even though the law allows them to. She finds more surprises than she bargained for.
I’ve read many WW2 novels, but none of them have touched on the Japanese internment camps. I had not known many details about them. It was interesting, but sad, to learn what happened to them. The fear was understandable: many experienced a similar fear of Middle Eastern people after 9/11. Like young Augie has to wrestle out for herself, no race of people is all good or all bad.
I’d like to tell him that there is no such thing as “they” or “them.” That there are only individuals with layer upon layer of experience, ideas, hopes, dreams, beliefs. That there are some Japanese who are really Americans, some whites who are really Negroes, some Irish-German-Americans who are really Japanese at heart. And that in spite of what a person appears to be or not to be, it’s the heart and not the face that matters.
I could begin again to differentiate, to see the faces of individuals rather than the blur of one large group. The Yamagatas had the eyes but not the soul of the people who had destroyed my brother. And that was what made them different.
Some of the civil rights era stories were both brutal and sad as well. Ann captured the struggles of everyone in the story in a realistic and heartfelt way. Her writing shines as well in a couple of turns of phrases I particularly liked:
I was already well aware of a hollow place inside of me, like an air bubble caught in a pane of glass.
Her painted eyelids were two blue robin’s eggs in a nest of clotted mascara.
The music filled what we would otherwise not have recognized as our parched souls, helping us realize the beauty that we longed for only when we heard it.
This book was a Christy award winner, and I can see why. A very good read.