J.J. White's novel Nisei suggests once again how great minds think alike. The novel begins with Robert Takahashi finding a memoir written by his father. My second novel's main character finds a memoir written by his father. Robert's father was a GI during WWII. My character's father was an army surgeon during the Korean War. Robert's father had an illicit romance that
At the beginning of Nisei, Robert Takahashi, his life in ruins, has decided that killing himself is his only alternative. In a final tour of his family's Hawaii house, he discovers a box containing a memoir his father, Hideo "Bobby" Takahashi dictated in 1953 that his mother never showed him. The bulk of Nisei is Bobby's story, as a teen-ager in Hawaii, his infatuation with a white girl, his watching the attack on Pearl Harbor, being arrested as a spy, being interred with his family first in the Santa Anita Race Track, then being split up, Bobby and his father being sent to the Tule Lake concentration camp; his mother and Chieko, the Japanese girl who becomes his wife, being sent to the Manzanar camp.
Ultimately, Bobby is able to to enlist in the US Army and becomes a member of the 422nd Regimental Combat Team, a unit of Japanese-Americans that is the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in the history of American warfare and we follow Bobby through combat in Italy and France.
Bobby, although born of Japanese parents on Hawaii, always saw himself as a loyal American. He dreamed of joining the US Navy. His being arrested as a spy is the result of his innocent actions. The family's incarceration is the result of Bobby's act and his father's pre-Pearl Harbor support of Japan. White does not over-emphasize the injustice of rounding up Japanese Americans in Hawaii and on the West Coast, but it is an indelible stain on the American story.
While Bobby's story is interesting and held my attention, Nisei has some problems. Here for example is the father of Bobby's (white) girlfriend confronting Bobby hours after the Pearl Harbor attack that has just killed the man's wife: "The people you and your father helped all those years just destroyed my life, Bobby. They shot her, an accountant. How proud your emperor must feel now that he has killed an innocent civilian . . .Go home to your family. I don't ever want you to see Mary again . . . Go, and never set foot on my property." White might argue that these words are being filtered through the consciousness of the woman who is taking the father's dictation, but they still seem bland.
I think there are a number of small problems. It's not clear how much Japanese Bobby speaks, but his mother apparently speaks no English. Wouldn't he be able to speak to her? Also I bump on sentences like, "What I didn't know was that, the next day, events would change my destiny." Aside from the heavy-handed foreshadowing, nothing happens the next day. Finally, late in the book, Bobby sums up his situation for the reader: "Earlier that morning I had woken happy with thoughts only of my future battles in the war and by late afternoon I had learned I was the father of two children I did not want, married still to a woman I did not like much and left without any chance of being with the girl I loved. . . ." Combat is almost a relief.
Nisei has an interesting premise: What would it be like to grow up as a second-generation Japanese American in Hawaii and witness the attack on Pearl Harbor and experience the tsunami of white prejudice and fear? Bobby Takahashi does the best he can, and his son, reading his memoir, is finally sobered.