Mid-autumn might seem like a weird time to start reading about baseball again, but since the World Series victories are still echoing in our ears, I think it's a fine time to start thinking about spring training again. One of the first books my brother got as an audio book to support his reading was BASEBALL SAVED US, by Ken Mochizuki, published by Lee & Low. That book was a big deal to ME because it reminded me of other books I'd read about life in Japanese internment camps during WWII, and tied baseball's popularity to both historical and contemporary Japan. I was pleased to find a book about a female baseball fan - I'm all about the sports books for girls - and even happier that it's a Canadian book - but was shocked to learn a piece of history that I'd discounted. I was unaware that Canadian citizens of the Japanese race were interned from 1941-1945 and some were deported after the war.
This is a quiet and slow-paced but vivid and absorbing slice of life for a girl called Michiko - or Millie, depending on who you are - who lived when the world was in flux, Italians and Japanese people weren't trusted in the Western world, and baseball was the one thing you could count on.
Summary: Michiko hasn't had a portrait of herself for years - because it's illegal for the Japanese to own cameras. The rowboat her Uncle George made? Has to be hidden, and eventually given away to a friend. From their normal lives in gorgeous, coastal Vancouver, the Minigawa’s have been pushed further and further inland -- until their only choice is to live West of the Rockies - or go back to a Japan that Michiko has never even seen.
Ontario is freezing, and worse, not filled with the familiar sighs and smells of Japanese-Canadian families. Here Michiko stands out so much that she takes refuge in being quiet Millie, doing her best to just fit... but the siren song of baseball urges her to break out of her shell. In time, her successes remind her family that success can still be had, and there are reasons still to be proud.
Peaks: Like most of my favorite historical fiction stories, this is an intergenerational tale. Though Michiko's entire family doesn't live together, the neighboring Italian woman, a serviceman uncle with whom she corresponds and the other adults in the small farming community color her perspective and inform bits of the story, filling in history and culture in ways the author might otherwise have found onerous. Michiko relies on her aunt's fashion sense to help her be the best-dressed girl at a party where she's mostly ignored while the Italian neighbor introduces her to lasagna and shares with her a pair of trainers which enable her to play baseball. I also love that this is multicultural -- the Italians and the Japanese are unlikely survivors, thrown together, and in this story that makes them tentative, then strong friends.
Though some of the adults in the novel are bitter and everyone is grieved, there are a variety of responses to being interned and Michiko is able to observe the adults in her life acting and reacting, and draws her own conclusions on how best to behave in the small but painful interactions she struggles with in her own life.
Valleys: I felt that there were no valleys, but would like to offer this book to a child with its companion volume, WHEN THE CHERRY BLOSSOMS FELL, to get the whole scope of Michiko's story.
Conclusion: We need diverse books which allow reader to compare and contrast experiences of the world war in various nations. I love that this book is about a girl who plays baseball against the odds, who tries to take pride in her culture when others would rip it away, and who does her best to keep faith with what she believes in.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of Dundurn Press. After December 15th, you can find CHERRY BLOSSOM BASEBALL by Jennifer Maruno at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!