Monday, May 28, 2012

Homefront: The Diary of Piper Davis: The Fences Between Us, Seattle, 1941 by Kirby Larson

I couldn't look at Hank's ship when it pulled out of port. I felt like a little kid--maybe if I didn't look, he wouldn't really be gone. Mrs. Harada put her arms around my shoulders. But nothing could fill up the Hank-sized hole in my heart.

Then she told me she had something for me. "Here, Piper," she said, handing me this diary. It fit into my hand like it belonged there. "I bought it a long time ago. Now seems like the right time."

It's the perfect time," said Pop. "Every thirteen-year-old girl could benefit from the self-reflection a diary offers."

"This is Piper's." Mrs. Harada wagged a finger at Pop. "No one can tell her what to write in it. Not even you."

Piper's funny, loving big brother has joined the peacetime Navy to travel the world, but his carrier joins the fleet at Pearl Harbor just before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Suddenly the war becomes very close to Piper's coastal Oregon home. Fearing air raids, the town begins drills, with blackouts and curfews every night, and her family spends frightening days waiting for letters from Hank and news of his ship, he Enteprise, as the war in the Pacific is joined. Piper's dad, a minister to their local Japanese church, spends a lot of time at work, and her older sister Margie drops out of nursing school to work long hours in a defense plant.

Piper begins to rely upon her diary, ("DeeDee" for "dear diary") to record her thoughts. There are still good times, listening to big bands on the radio with her best friend Trixie, school dances with Bud, the dreamiest-looking eighth-grade boy, and a very different Christmas as the country settles into wartime mode.

But then President Roosevelt signs the Japanese removal act, decreeing that "alien and non-alien residents of Japanese origin must be rounded up and "removed" to internment camps, and Piper watches her old babysitter Mrs. Harada, her classmate Betty Sato, and all the members of her father's parish and the entire Japanese community, many of them citizens, are rounded up and crowded into trains and sent to a desolate, cold, and windy detention camp in Idaho. Like other people around her, Piper is torn between her fears for their young soldiers and sailors and their sympathy for their Japanese friends who lose their homes and businesses, some even imprisoned for fear that they might be spies. Everything is changing, and Piper turns to her diary and her camera to record the changes and her jumbled thoughts.

Then, as rationing of food, fabric, tires, and gasoline begins to change their lives at home, Piper's life is totally disrupted.

I hate, hate, hate my father!

Tonight after supper, Pop said he had something to tell me.

"We're moving." Pops cleared his throat. "To Minidoka."

I dropped my fork. "Where? No. No."

He's the pastor, not me, so I don't know why I have to go to Idaho. I'm not going to move.

But go Piper does. Trixie's family offers to let her live with them to finish eighth grade, and Margie stays behind to work at Boeing, but Piper's dad insists that she go with him.

In Twin Falls, outside the internment camp, Piper finds the town filled with "No Japs" signs, and they are soon evicted from their rented house when the owner discovers that her father works with the detainees at the camp. The Japanese families with whom she has celebrated Christmas and Easter, birthdays, and family outings are crammed into unheatable rooms, with hardships which range from dreary food in the mess hall to dust which yields to deep mud to rattlesnakes under the buildings, but when a school is set up there, Piper chooses to attend with Betty and the other children, despite the cold and constant illnesses that sweep through the children and elderly population.

Using her diary and her camera to chronicle and sort out the events unfolding around her, Piper matures as she weighs the hardship of the detainees against the sacrifice of all Americans, and although unable to resolve the conflict within, she realizes that there is something that everyone can do. Betty's brother volunteers for the Army, hoping to prove that Japanese-Americans are good citizens, and Piper does what she can to make their lives better and to help on the homefront.

It was Pop who helped me learn the most important thing. He made me realize that 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.

Newbery author Kirby Larson's The Dear America: The Fences Between Us (Scholastic) captures some of the fear, dislocation, and trials of the early days of World War II with the first person narrative of a sheltered young teen girl in 1941. Based on real characters from wartime Oregon, this edition in the Dear America books, an extensive series which features notable authors, is an absorbing "you are there" account of those days on the homefront for middle readers. Those who have enjoyed the American Girls Collection (Pleasant Company) will find this series equally to their maturing tastes. This addition is likewise supported by backmatter--epilogue, "Life in American in 1941," an historical and photographic appendix with related web sites, the text of speeches by President Roosevelt, and even a wartime sugarless recipe for oatmeal cookies from the period.

For a poignant novel from the point of view of a Japanese-American girl detainee of Piper's age, see Cynthia Kadohata's Weedflower (Atheneum).

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  • I believe the author is Kirby Larson.

    By Blogger Bob, at 12:28 AM  

  • This is such a thorough and wonderful review; thank you. May I correct one thing? The story begins in Seattle, Washington and moves to Twin Falls, Idaho; while people in Oregon certainly had similar experiences to those described in the book, the story doesn't take place in that state.

    By Blogger Kirby Larson, at 12:03 PM  

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