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A woman sees the sign on a bright day in Berkeley, California, in 1942. Otsuka, who demonstrates a breathtaking restraint and delicacy throughout this supple and devastating first novel, does not explain what the sign says, or immediately reveal the woman's Japanese heritage. The woman has a smart and nervy daughter, and a bright and imaginative son. The man of the house, a successful businessman, has already been taken away. And so Otsuka launches her exquisite psychological tale, inspired by her own family's travails, of the internment of tens of thousands of innocent Japanese Americans during World War II. By illuminating the minds of each of her magnetic, wryly humorous characters, and by focusing on such details as the torment of having to abandon pets, the emblematic loss of an earring, the magical sight of wild mustangs out a train window at night, and the harsh Utah desert in which these gentle souls are forced to live in grim exile for more than three years, Otsuka universalizes their experience of prejudice and disenfranchisement, creating a veritable poetics of stoicism. (For another evocative approach to the subject, see Marnie Mueller's Climate of the Country ). --Donna Seaman
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This heartbreaking, bracingly unsentimental debut describes in poetic detail the travails of a Japanese family living in an internment camp during World War II, raising the specter of wartime injustice in bone-chilling fashion. After a woman whose husband was arrested on suspicion of conspiracy sees notices posted around her neighborhood in Berkeley instructing Japanese residents to evacuate, she moves with her son and daughter to an internment camp, abruptly severing her ties with her community. The next three years are spent in filthy, cramped and impersonal lodgings as the family is shuttled from one camp to another. They return to Berkeley after the war to a home that has been ravaged by vandals; it takes time for them to adjust to life outside the camps and to come to terms with the hostility they face. When the children's father re-enters the book, he is more of a symbol than a character, reduced to a husk by interrogation and abuse. The novel never strays into melodrama-Otsuka describes the family's everyday life in Berkeley and the pitiful objects that define their world in the camp with admirable restraint and modesty. Events are viewed from numerous characters' points of view, and the different perspectives are defined by distinctive, lyrically simple observations. The novel's honesty and matter-of-fact tone in the face of inconceivable injustice are the source of its power. Anger only comes to the fore during the last segment, when the father is allowed to tell his story-but even here, Otsuka keeps rage neatly bound up, luminous beneath the dazzling surface of her novel. (Sept.) Forecast: Reader interest in the Japanese-American experience was proved by the success of Snow Falling on Cedars. Otsuka's pared-down narrative may have a more limited appeal, but can safely be recommended to Guterson fans. Five-city author tour. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
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Otsuka researched historical sources and her own grandparents' experiences as background for this spare yet poignant first novel about the ordeal of a Japanese family sent to an internment camp during World War II. Its perspective shifts among different family members as the story unfolds. We see the mother numbly pack up the family's middle-class belongings to leave behind in their Berkeley home. The dehumanizing train trip to the camp, and the bleak internment in the alkaline Nevada desert, as related by the young son and daughter, become mythic events. Their father, picked up for questioning immediately after Pearl Harbor and imprisoned throughout the war, returns a broken and bitter man. The family's humiliation continues beyond the war's end: after returning to their vandalized home, they are shunned for months by former friends and neighbors. The novel's themes of freedom and banishment are especially important as we see civil liberties threatened during the current war on terrorism. Otsuka's clear, elegant prose makes these themes accessible to a range of reading levels from young adult on. Highly recommended for all libraries.-Reba Leiding, James Madison Univ. Libs., Harrisonburg, VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.