21,000 Japanese-Canadians were rounded up and placed in internment camps during World War 2. This work of historical fiction reads like a memoir. Themes of loss and grief in one man are woven together seamlessly with stories of those who suffered unjustly at the hands of government forces. I remember reading about similar American history in Snow Falling on Cedars, and was myself unaware that this had happened in Canada as well. Probably the most famous novel about this history was written by Joy Kagawa in a novel called Obasan.
This is a quiet novel, evocative, lyrical and beautifully written. Though there is not much plot, there is movement as Bin Okuma, after losing his wife and struggling with his art work, travels across the country with his beloved dog Basil, hunting down ghosts of his childhood. He travels to meet his First Father to uncover some mysteries of the past. The book is a historical account of the tremendous injustices of this shameful racism, but it is not without redemptive themes of love and art and hope. It is a story well told and very readable. Although I found it a bit plodding and slow at times, I also found parts of it fascinating and I am glad that I stuck with it. It will be a book that is not easily forgotten and is a good choice for book clubs.
Just as I finished this novel I ran into a quote on Facebook which couldn’t have been more well timed and appropriate. The topic of the quote refers to an ancient Japanese practice called kintsugi. “When the Japanese mend broken objects, they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold. They believe that when something’s suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful.” (Billie Mobayed) There is a crack in everything. As Leonard Cohen says, that’s how the light gets in. Shattered pieces can learn to mend; brokenness creates a unique history that can become beautiful when it becomes strong again.
There are a lot of music references in this novel. For your convenience, here is a handy playlist.
Itani’s novel is this year’s choice for One Book, One Mississauga. It’s a city-wide library program where residents are encouraged to read one book over the summer, and then participate in events in the fall where the book will be discussed in more detail. It will be the biggest book club in the city!
Note: Itani’s husband lived the history in this novel. Here is an article about him.
(Grades 3-5) Judith Kerr was a child in Berlin before the outbreak of the Second World War. Her father was a journalist who had to flee with his family first to Switzerland, then to Paris, and finally to England where Judith has lived ever since.
In the story, Anna (Judith) sees posters everywhere of a man called Hitler who she thinks looks like Charlie Chaplin, but has no idea who he is. Why does her father have to leave? Why is it suddenly so dangerous to stay? Where are they going to go? Because of Hitler they must leave everything they know and love behind, including a stuffed pink rabbit.
Judith Kerr writes and illustrates books for children. You may also know the Mog series based on the family cat, and The Tiger who Came to Tea. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (first of the Out of the Hitler Time series) was written to convey to her children what it was like for her to be a refugee during the war. Her son had seen The Sound of Music and said, “now I know what you went through in the war.” She wrote Pink Rabbit to set him straight. Even though her family was displaced, she has good memories of how her parents made it seem more like a positive adventure than being uprooted. She said she never realized until much later how hard it must have been for her parents to make the decision to flee to foreign lands. She has always been thankful they did.
Today I had the pleasure of being in the audience at a BBC recording and asking Judith Kerr a question. She is a very youthful 92 indeed and it was wonderful to listen to her speak about her life, art, and writing. There were several elderly war veterans who attended, having some connection to Judith and her family as well, and she enjoyed meeting them. In the interview it came up that sometimes people think that Pink Rabbit is a metaphor for “childhood.” She replied in a down-to-earth tone, “Absolutely not. Don’t read into it, it was just a stuffed pink rabbit!” She said her husband came up with the catchy title because he thought it would help sell the book. Well, he was right!
Teachers will find plenty of teaching resources online to use with this upper elementary book, focussing on the refugee experience as much as the Holocaust. Other similar books are Hana’s Suitcase by Karen Levine and Number the Stars by Lois Lowry.
This is a moving and haunting novel, so well researched and described, with two unforgettable main characters. It will likely be one of those gems that many individuals and book clubs will be talking about. It is going to make an incredible movie one day. This is not just another WW 2 story, it has an original quality that sets it apart.
Marie-Laure is a blind girl in France whose father has built a replica of their neighbourhood in miniature so that she can learn to navigate it. Her father is a locksmith and he crafts the houses in the model so that they are detachable and can be manipulated like a puzzle to reveal a secret inner compartment.
Werner is a small blonde German orphan with an exceptional talent in small mechanics–his specialty is radios. Because it is the time of World War 2, his skills land him a place in the Hitler Youth. He is young and naive but soon realizes what is really happening with the Third Reich and he begins to make choices of his own, at his own peril. Both of these children hold a priceless treasure in their hands. Will it be found or lost forever? Will it bring fortune or failure?
The story takes place mostly in the ancient walled city of Saint-Malo. The book alternates in narrative between Marie-Laure and Werner. And of course you know that eventually their stories will merge. The chapters also alternate between different time periods, mostly going back and forth between the beginning and the end of the war. The tension builds slowly but steadily as the occupation escalates.
The novel is beautifully crafted and is full of rich detail. Doerr has an interesting descriptive style which sometimes seems overwritten but then suddenly drives forward again. The chapters are very short, creating the feeling of a brisk pace in the midst a fair amount of lyricism. If it is possible for a book to be a “slow page-turner” then this is it; I felt conflicted–I wanted to slow down and enjoy the writing but at the same time I wanted to speed up to find out what was going to happen!!