Friday, November 5, 2010

Picture Bride

Several years ago my husband and I made a trip to San Francisco.  We had a fabulous time, especially eating all the sourdough bread and dungeness crab we could, but also sight-seeing and enjoying the beautiful weather in August.  We toured Alcatraz and then Angel Island, which is like the Ellis Island of the West Coast.  It was fascinating and shocking.  There I learned that during WWII, Japanese Americans were put in detainment camps for fear of their association with their mother country.  The conditions were horrible and they were imprisoned even when they had their citizenship.  I couldn't believe it.  How had I never heard of this before?  It completely opened my eyes.

A few months ago, my book group read Picture Bride by Yoshiko Uchida.  It's the story of Hana Omiya, a young woman whose family arranged for her to marry a man in San Francisco.  Hana is one of hundreds of picture brides who came to the United States during that time.  She travels from Japan in 1917 and there meets her fiance, Taro Takeda, an Oakland shopkeeper.  Hana was lead to believe that Taro was a prosperous man, but in fact, his shop barely makes enough to get by. Taro is a kind-hearted person, though, a very devout Christian and a conscientious student of English.  Instead of joining the ranks of houseboys and laborers, he worked hard to acquire his shop and make a life for himself.  Their life is far different than what Hana was expecting, especially since she came from a formerly wealthy family in Japan, but Hana is clever and resourceful and quickly adapts.

Unfortunately, racism against Asians in that area was normal at the time and Hana and Taro and their church community deal with it constantly.  Hana, an educated woman who could have been a teacher in Japan, ends up doing housework.  Taro's shop flourishes with Hana's influence, but Taro resents that she's better at his job than he is.  Everything Hana does for Taro is done with a light touch, partly due to his pride, but also because Taro doubts Hana's love for him.  Hana once loved his best friend, back when they were first married, but nothing ever came of it.  I don't want to paint these people in a bad light, though.  They love their daughter, Mary, serve selflessly at church, use their money carefully and find a form on happiness in a land that doesn't want them.

Mary, their daughter, is much more American than Hana and Taro are.  She worked hard at school, had friends and immersed herself into American culture.  Her relationship with Taro is good because he speaks English well, but Hana never really learned to speak as well as Taro and Mary and that put up a wall between mother and daughter.  When Mary leaves home, it isn't a surprise when she pulls away from her parents and disconnects from their lives, but it's heart-breaking.

Whew, I'm only half-way through the book here!  When World War II began and the bombing of Pearl Harbor occurred, suspicion towards Japanese-Americans escalated.  When the government starts rounding up and interning the Japanese, Hana and Taro are included.  Their experiences in the internment camps are painful, mostly because they really happened.  The author based this entire book on her family's experiences.  Yoshiko Uchida was the daughter of Japanese immigrants who were interned at the same locations in the book. Uchida was given permission to be released and return to graduate school, but her parents were kept in the camps.  The conditions at the camp near Delta, Utah were awful and I was astonished over and over again how the government treated people who were citizens.  The people are able to find small joys, like the wedding of a young couple or reuniting families, but in general, they are stuck in horrible conditions with no end in sight.

This book was exquisite and painful, showing how people can be utterly debased and still prevail.  There were beautifully tender moments that filled my heart.  I'm so glad that Uchida told her story, that she was able to share an important part of history, and that my book group picked to read it.  It's through stories like these that we are able to understand history and become better people through it.


  1. Jenny, sometime when you are here, we will take you out to the Japanese Interment campsite in the West Desert. I didn't know that you didn't know about that part of our history. I didn't either until I moved here.

  2. This sounds like a good one to share with my book group for BYOB (Bring Your Own Book) next month. Lately I've been reading a lot of fluff, so it's about time for a deeper read!