Sunday 10 August 2014

So far from the sea by Eve Bunting

So far from the sea by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Chris K. Soentpiet (Sandpiper, 1998)

ISBN 978-0-395-72095-0

32 pages with black and white and colour illustrations

Subjects: World War Two, Japan, USA, family, internees, junior fiction (Year 5-8)

Laura Iwasaki and her little brother Thomas are in the car, driving to visit her grandfather’s grave. Their family is moving from California to Boston, so this may be their last visit for some time. They are all huddled up in warm clothes, it is February, and bitterly cold. From their sad and solemn faces, we realise this is a difficult trip for them to make.

The cemetery is in the middle of a deserted, sandy site that was once bustling with people. Gradually we find out that Laura’s grandparents and her father, as a small boy, were among the thousands of Americans with a Japanese background who were taken to internment camps in World War Two. Her grandfather, a tuna fisherman, hated being so far from the sea and in the end he died in the camp, at Manzanar.

The writing is simple but evocative and some of the descriptions are very effective: “The road is straight and endless. Crows strut in the stubbly fields.”

The illustrations vary page by page, from black and white –for the scenes in the camp during the 1940s – to colour, for the family’s farewell visit more than thirty years later, in the 1970s. The picture of the offerings left at the monument – “origami birds, their wings trapped under little rocks” and “crumbs of a rice cake” – is especially moving. So too is the picture of Laura’s father as a boy, dressed in his American Cub Scout uniform, saluting the soldiers who have come to take him and his parents away.

This review in Publishers weekly describes how "the artist's watercolors recreate two vastly different settings, evoking the tense 1940s scenarios in black and white and the serene yet wistful 1970s setting in bright color" and calls it "an exceptionally effective collaboration. 

Author’s website
Eve Bunting was born in Ireland but emigrated to the USA with her husband and three small children and has since written more than 200 books for children. Her first book, written after she took a creative writing course, was a retelling of an Irish folk tale. Her books often deal with the experiences of immigrants or with difficult issues such as race riots or homelessness.

In this biography of Eve Bunting, she says “One of my greatest joys is writing picture books. I have discovered the pleasures of telling a story of happiness or sorrow in a few simple words. I like to write picture books that make young people ponder, that encourage them to ask questions. 'Why did that happen, Mom? Could it happen again? Can't we help? What can we do?' One child wrote to tell me that one of my books had won the Heal the World award at her school. It is among the most cherished honors I have ever received and the plaque hangs proudly above my desk."

There is a video interview with her here.

And this is her talking about how her father used to read to her as a child:
"You know, it rains a lot in Ireland, and lots of times we'd sit in the house by the big turf fire. And he would take me on his lap and read to me. He would stop now and then when it would maybe be a little difficult. And he would say, "Now, my darlin', do ya understand that? What's the poet trying to say?" And we would talk about it."

About the illustrator
Chris K.Soentpiet was born in south Korea. When he was eight, he and his sister were adopted by the Soentpiet family and they moved to Hawaii. His website includes teacher’s lesson plans for this book. 

Other books you might like:
I only just realised from reading this interview that Eve Bunting wrote another book that my children enjoyed: Spying on Miss Müller. “The main character, Jessie, is a thinly disguised Eve attending boarding school in Ireland during World War II.”

Summer of my German soldier by Bette Greene is a book for older readers about the German Prisoner of War camps set up in America in World War Two. 

Things I didn’t know
I had never heard of Manzanar (Spanish for “apple orchard”) which is now a national historic site in California. It was one of ten war relocation centres, built to house 120,000 men, women and children of Japanese ancestry who were living in the USA when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, thus bringing the USA into World War Two.  

These Japanese Americans were given only days to sort out their houses, farms, businesses and possessions before they were moved to the camps. Two thirds of the internees at Manzanar were under 18 years of age and 541 babies were born there. Manzanar was in the desert so it was very hot in summer, freezing cold in winter, with fierce winds that blew dust everywhere.

New Zealand links
Parallels in this country (where internees were held in the war) would be Matiu/Somes Island in Wellington harbour and Motuihe island in the Hauraki Gulf.

Camp on Somes Island [ca 1910s]. Reference number: 1/2-038622-F. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.
Camp on Matiu/Somes Island 
during WWI

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