Sunday, March 20, 2011

My Brother, My Sister, and I

By Yoko Kawashima Watkins

Balancing Farewell to Manzanar with a book about what it was like to be in Japan post-war is My Brother, My Sister, and I. It is actually a sequel to So Far from the Bamboo Grove, about a Japanese family's attempt to escape from Korea as World War II comes to an end. I selected My Brother, My Sister, and I because it deals with re-integration into Japanese society after having grown up in Korea, as foreigners in what ought to be their homeland.

Yoko, still called Little One, at 14, is the youngest of three siblings. Her sister, Ko, is a student at Seian University, and her oldest sibling, Hideyo, 21, is a guard because of his Martial Arts skills. They are living in poverty- their mother passed away suddenly one day in a train station, and their father is nowhere to be found. They keep up hope that he is alive, and their filial piety is strong- they hang onto their family heirlooms and have an altar devoted to their mother.

Having befriended an elderly couple (The Masudas) who own a large clog factory, they have a shelter over their head, albeit in a very small room, which is measured in Tatami (rectangular woven grass mats). A single tatami measures 3 feet by 6 feet, so this room is very small. When someone lights fire to the clog factory, the Kawashimas must escape- but Ko runs back into the fire to get a bundle of family heirlooms and their mothers ashes. She injures herself very badly and ends up in the hospital for a few months. Ko is restless, but as the narrator, Yoko has to endure bullies at school and prejudice from strangers.

Yoko cannot afford basic school supplies like paper, so she has to salvage what she can from other students trash, and she also helps the janitor, who has a speech impediment but is a very kind man. The other students are nasty- she is called trash and ragdoll and more; she is accused of thievery, and while she hates school immensely and wants to drop out (can't really blame her with bullies like those), because her siblings are adamant that she stays, she does.

Accused of murdering the Masudas, Yoko and her brother set out to find the real culprit with the help of the police- and they ultimately find the culprits with cunning and clever tactics. Unfortunately, this is not the end of Yoko's trouble, since she is now the enemy of the rich girls at school after boldly exposing one as a liar and getting her expelled.

The second portion of the book deals with the search for their father. Unfortunately, nobody has heard from him, and in post-war Japan, the infrastructure is weak and there is little help other than mailing a postcard with a lost person's name on it to their home city. Yoko puts up cards for her father in Aomori, but rumor has it that all high-ranking officers who were trapped in Korea had been killed, so there is very little hope.

Yoko is still attending her horrid school, and learning crafts like how to make silk and how to sew lovely toys for children, so she is learning to make money. Eventually, she goes to stay with the Minato family who are better able to provide for her, but she receives a telegram that her sister is very ill and needs surgery on her knee.

Finally, their search for their father comes to an end, and their long journey is resolved- but only after much struggle and being disheartened time after time.

I recommend this book as a companion piece to Farewell to Manzanar because shines a light on Japanese culture, and what it might have been like after the war for Japanese people outside of the United States. Yuko and her siblings have a very strong familial bond and keep it together, even when the going becomes extremely tough.

Ages 11 up.

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