Two Books that Reflect Turbulent Times in America

dust of edenDust of Eden, a novel by Mariko Nagai. Albert Whitman & Company, Park Ridge, IL. 2014

Thirteen-year-old Mina Tagawa is singing in Sunday school choir, practicing Silent Night, when a man crashes through the door, yelling,

“‘…the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor.’ The world stopped.”

Mina Tagawa has a best friend that she shares secrets with. She has a big brother with a room full of track trophies. She has a grandfather who raises roses. But suddenly, in December 1941, she has a new identity: enemy.

Dust of Eden is a powerful story, told simply in verse. The beautiful writing and simple lines belie the tragedy of the subject: for three years Mina and her family live behind barbed wire for no other reason than that they are of Japanese-American ancestry.

I am an American, I scream in my head.”

Mina wishes she could change her hair color to match Jamie’s, her best friend; change her name; change her parents. But of course she cannot. When they are told they must leave, there are two lists. A list of things they must take and a list of things they may not. Basho, their scruffy cat, must stay behind. Mina explains to Jamie, who will be taking care of him:

“He doesn’t understand English; he grew up around us, listening to Japanese. He doesn’t drink milk. He grew up drinking miso soup…”

At first it is a matter of putting up with classmates and others throwing that hated word, “Jap,” in her face. But once they are removed to an internment camp, there are more ordinary challenges in an extraordinary circumstance: how to take a shower. How to keep a dirt floor clean. But most of all, how to keep her father and brother from fighting.

Dust of Eden tells the story of one of America’s great shames. But it also tells the story of the ties that bind a family and friends,who remain true even when a prejudice tide sweeps away so many.

How I Discovered Poetry by Marilyn Nelson. Dial Books, New York, NY. 2014

Four-year-old Marilyn, sitting next to her mother in church, wonders why Lot had to flee from the bad city.

“imagine having a pet flea.”

“I giggle soundlessly, but Mama swats my leg, holding a finger to her lips.”

Written in unrhymed sonnets, How I discovered Poetry, is both a heartwarming and disturbing memoir. It is Marilyn Nelson’s story of growing up in the 1950’s, an African-American girl, daughter of one of the first African-American career officers in the Air Force. It is the story of a military family, moving many times, following her father’s transfers all over the States and constantly saying goodbye to friends.

Set against a travelogue of a military family, How I Discovered Poetry is also an exploration of the fifties: racism, the civil rights movement, bomb shelters and the beginning of women’s liberation. It also tells the story of a young girl coming to grips with what is happening in the South. She prays for the students in Little Rock. She recoils at the poem her teacher insists she read to the class, a poem filled with:

“…darkies, pickaninnies, disses and dats.”

But most of all, it is a poignant memoir of a young girl, coming to maturity and recording, in beautiful verse, her own history, so similar, but different, to the history of so many others.

 

 

 

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