________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 16 . . . . April 3, 2009

cover This Land We Call Home.

Alison Lohans.
Rosedale, NZ: Pearson Education (available in Canada from the author), 2007.
189 pp., pbk., $14.95 (plus shipping).
ISBN 978-1-86970-591-6.

Grades 6-8 / Ages 11-13.

Review by Betty Klassen.

**** /4

excerpt:

Mom and the younger kids were in the vineyard picking grapes, laying the bunches on the wooden trays. The Nishimuras were helping. As always, Mrs Nishimura carried the baby on her back. Paula glanced at Ken and Eddie, now in their work clothes. It seemed strange, watching them work, to think that Ken was the smartest student in the whole eighth grade.

"Florence!" Grandpa Miller bellowed, striding towards them.

Oh no . . .Paula clenched her fists. He was going to say something dreadful; she knew it.

"Florence!" Grandpa shouted again. "What the hell are you doing? No daughter on mine works with Japs and niggers." He spat into the dirt.

Fury pumped through Paula. Why didn't Grandpa ever help? "Be quiet!" she screamed at him. She was shaking too hard to think - and now it was too late. "You knew we'd run out of gas. Since you know so much, go find the gas can yourself." How could Grandpa be so awful? Now Ken would think . . .

Grandpa turned on her. "How dare you!" In his rage, he was terrifyingly close. "You're gonna get it, you little . . ."

"Leave her alone!" Mom's voice sliced out in cold anger.

The last thing Paula saw through the blur of tears was Ken's face - a polite, expressionless mask. "We have gas, Mr Miller," he said. "I'll get it for you."

Paula and Ken, both 13 and in grade eight, bear a huge responsibility for helping their parents harvest the crops on their neighboring farms close to Reedley, CA. The novel opens in August of 1941 when the world is at war with Germany and Italy and tensions between the Japanese and Caucasians are rising in their community. The Harmon's and Nishimura's have been good neighbours; Ken and Paula have been friends, sitting together on the bus ride to school, playing together between their chores whenever they had the chance. Author Alison Lohans effectively alternates the chapters between Paula and Ken's points of view, labeling and dating the opening pages of each chapter to make it easy for the reader to follow the timeline.

    Chapter one is written from Paula Harmon's point of view. She is wishing she lived in town so she could see her friends more and is missing her older brother, David, who enlisted in the navy upon graduation. His ship, the USS Arizona, is presently docked in Pearl Harbor. Paula's responsibilities increase when her father leaves in the middle of the harvest to be with her Grandpop Harmon in San Diego after he is seriously hurt in a car accident. The Nishimura's have agreed to help the Harmon's bring in their almond and grape crops.

     In Chapter two, readers learn more of the events as Ken sees them. He feels a huge responsibility as the oldest son to help maintain the farm, to do well in school, to live according to the values of his parents, and to stay away from the hakujin (Caucasian) girls, a difficult expectation to meet since Paula and Ken have been friends since birth and live next door to each other. Sometimes he worries his parents may arrange a "picture bride" marriage to someone from Japan whom he has never met, since this is how his parentsí marriage had been arranged. Because Ken's parents are Issei, first generation immigrants from Japan, they are prevented from owning land, and consequently Ken's father and Mr. Harmon have completed the necessary documents so that the farm is actually in Ken's name.

     As the war overseas escalates, so do the tensions in the San Joaquin Valley where the Harmon's and Nishimura's live and work. Paula is embarrassed and angered by her Grandpa Miller's outspoken racism, part of which is seen in the excerpt included above, but she is reassured by the kindness of her other grandfather who comes to live with them once he is released from the hospital after his accident. There are incidents where Japanese are prevented from entering certain business establishments and restaurants, and blatant signs saying JAPS GO HOME. Ken finds it hard to believe that this will continue.

     The irony is that the teens are studying the US constitution in grade 8, and Ken is confident that the rumors he hears cannot be true because he has learned that all American citizens have these rights. He, as an American citizen has these rights, and therefore he and his family will not "be deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation."

     After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Ken and his family are forced to go to a camp in the desert where the living conditions are horrible. Paula and her family grieve for the loss of their son and brother, David. Paula misses her friend Ken and his family and worries how they are coping, anxiously waiting for a letter from Ken. Her Grandpop Harmon goes to live on the Nishimura's farm to try and save it for them and to prevent others from burning it to the ground. Paula needs to assume even more responsibilities, but she is determined to help her Grandpop so that Ken and his family have a viable farm to come back to.

     Lohans has written an excellent historical fiction novel that is well-researched and is also based on stories from her mother who taught in a Japanese relocation camp and stories told to her by Japanese American families who returned home after the war. The characters are realistic and complex, and readers will be drawn into their lives and live their struggles as the plot evolves.

     Lohans has made strategic use of a few Japanese words, the meanings of which are easy to determine from the context, but a glossary is provided so readers can double check their interpretation. This Land We Call Home would be an excellent companion to Caged Eagles by Eric Walters, which tells the story of the Canadian internment of Japanese citizens in British Columbia.

Highly Recommended.

Betty Klassen teaches in the Faculty of Education in the Middle Years Program at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.
 

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