How’s this for new math: the first 286 pages hold about the same weight as the final 25 pages. The fictional diary expounds and entertains, revealing a 13-year-old’s West Coast experiences during World War II; the ending “Life in America in 1941” section illuminates and educates, providing readers resonating historical and personal context to one of America’s most shameful wartime decisions.
On November 8, 1941, Piper Davis’ recently enlisted older brother Hank sets off for Hawai’i to serve in the U.S. Navy. That Saturday, for the first time in her life, Piper begins writing in her diary, a gift from Mrs. Harada who has cared for her since she was a baby after her mother passed away. “DeeDee” – as in “Dear Diary” – becomes the repository for a tumultuous year-and-a-half of young Piper’s life.
One month later, Hank thankfully survives the Pearl Harbor bombing, but back on the mainland, the battles are just beginning. As the pastor to the Seattle Japanese Baptist Church, Piper’s father witnesses the ugliness of wartime racism. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signs Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, Pastor Davis loses his entire congregation when church members are first relocated to the horse stalls of “Camp Harmony,” then imprisoned at Camp Minidoka in Idaho. With unprecedented courage, the pastor follows his flock.
Piper tries to maintain a ‘normal’ life, going to school, spending time with her friends, and navigating her first romance. But she also watches as her Japanese American friends she has known all her life are targeted and punished for crimes they never committed. Although she gravely protests when her father uproots her to Idaho, her own experiences at Minidoka provide invaluable life lessons: “Mrs. Harada taught me that a good broom and good faith are essential tools when facing the dust of life. Mr. Matsui taught me that there is beauty to be found even in the middle of a desert. But it was Pop who helped me to learn the most important thing of all … even if we can’t do much about the fences that get built around people, when fences get built between people, it’s our job to tear them down.”
Author Kirby Larson doesn’t end her story there. In addition to a thorough, detailed “Historical Note,” haunting photographs of actual events that add at least a thousand words each, a cookie recipe that adds a sweet interlude, the transcript of FDR’s “Infamy speech” (the audible version, read adroitly by Elaina Erika Davis, offers the actual recording of FDR’s fateful address!), the final “From the Author” addition is perhaps the most powerful two pages of all.
A Washington State resident for most of her life, Larson didn’t know about the WWII fate of some 120,000 Japanese Americans until she went to college in the 1970s: “How could I have grown up in an area where thousands of residents had been forced from their homes without being aware of it?” Decades later, while conducting World War I research for her 2007 Newbery Honor Book, Hattie Big Sky, Larson came across an interview with a German American woman who delivered groceries to her Japanese American neighbors the day after Pearl Harbor. “’I remember during the other war when my mother couldn’t buy any food anywhere. I am afraid that might happen to you,’” she told her neighbors.
When Larson learned about Emery “Andy” Andrews, the real-life pastor who followed his congregation from Seattle to Twin Falls, Idaho, and Minidoka, Larson knew she had her story. And on this 72nd anniversary of “a date which will live in infamy,” we definitely have ours.
Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult