This month, we’re jumping into Pandora’s Box with Garden of Stones by Sophie Littlefield Here’s a bit about the plot: On the surface, fourteen year old Lucy Takeda seems to have a charmed life. Her father Renjiro is the well-respected owner of a prosperous business packaging and shipping dried apricots worldwide. Her mother Miyako is revered for her breathtaking beauty and elegance. And Lucy looks just like her mother. Their home is one of the nicest in the community. Still life is not always serene. Miyako is delicate and suffers from mood swings, spending some days in her darkened room, and then others with a surplus of energy. The high energy days, though, almost always end with Miyako in tears, as Lucy’s elderly father tries to comfort her.
But with the war, the pattern of Lucy’s life is changing. For the first time, her status as a wealthy man’s daughter doesn’t prevent her from being judged by the color of skin and slant of her eyes. Teachers bypass her for class positions, and friends ignore her presence. But nothing prepares her for the changes in her life on December 7, 1941. In a little over two hours, Japanese bombers almost destroy America’s navy and air force plus kill two thousand citizens and injure over a thousand. After the attack, Americans of Japanese ancestry are viewed with suspicion and distrust. Within weeks, Lucy and her mother are ripped from their home, and sent to Manzanar War Relocation Camp, located at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California’s Owens Valley. Conditions there are harsh and dismal but Lucy’s spirits are buoyed by her youthful optimism.
Maggie has talked often about War World II stories, so as soon as I saw this book, I knew I had to read it. Since Maggie is more familiar with this time period, I asked if she would like to do a Pandora’s Box together.
Leigh: Maggie, This wasn’t quite what I was expecting. But since you have read many more books about this time period, I have to ask if this is a typical book about the imprisonment of Japanese-American citizens?
Maggie: I don’t know that there is a typical book about the imprisonment of Japanese American citizens. I will say that among the ones I have read, this book did not impress me. There were times that the author seemed to forget she was writing a story and would slip into text-book mode for several pages. I also felt that I never really got a grasp on the characters and this was mostly due to the author’s habit of trying to wow us by twisting events after they had occurred. So you would be reading, thinking character B is like this because of events C and D when in fact C and D’s actions had been done by character A. Confusing and not very enjoyable.
Leigh: It wasn’t very enjoyable. And again you are right about confusing. The author attempted to introduce so many premises. First there is a murder and at the beginning the reader has no idea why anyone would want to murder this man. Then the story flashes back to December 1941. Lucy seems so self-possessed,- and full of self-importance. I sort of understand that you may have those attributes if you are wealthy. I didn’t get the feeling that Lucy lived in a completely isolated community and I thought that even before the war, people of Asian descent had to deal with prejudice and bigotry. So I found it hard to believe that everyone – even her Caucasian classmates– thought her gorgeous. I know it’s a minute thing to obsess about, but I just expected that Lucy would be dealing with xenophobia, but instead she feels very secure about her appearance. This just contributed to a feeling that the book wasn’t very historically accurate.
Maggie: I was confused, frankly, about where Lucy did live. It sounded as though all their family friends were Japanese. At her father’s funeral we definitely get that impression. Yet clearly the school had no other Japanese children. Why? Surely her father couldn’t have been the only fairly wealthy Japanese man in town. Even if her school was private, why would she be the only non-white girl there? Added to that is my question of why she didn’t have friends within her own community. Her complete isolation was odd. Even in the camp she seemed to have only one friend.
On the other hand, I understood the obsession with beauty. Our society is obsessed with it and clearly it defined life for both Lucy and her mother even after the war started. I’ve heard before that being beautiful is not always an asset during war time and that certainly proved to be the case for them at the camp. I also thought it was a key plot element – their beauty defined them and what happened to them.
That said, I didn’t understand the character of Lucy. I was never convinced that she was completely sane. I think this is due mostly to the author’s uneven writing style but I just never got the sense she was playing with a full deck. I know you found the beginning confusing but I found most of the book confusing. Was that just me?
Leigh: No, the confusion continued or maybe it was more bewilderment about the focus of the story. Is it just to show how many bad things can happen to one person? The books moves forward to the war, then the transfer to the War Relocation Camp. At this point, I realized why the author made such a big issue of the women’s beauty. Like you said, it wasn’t an asset. It was also during this portion of the book that I started feeling that plot details were just being introduced for shock value.
Maggie: I guess I felt the lack of focus more strongly than you did in terms of the characters. Lucy’s decisions always felt off to me, like they were being made by someone who couldn’t understand the full consequences of their choice. That didn’t jibe with the fact that we were told she was brilliant. I also felt she was callous – the whole drama with the man who taught her taxidermy was an example of that. Assuming that she was vulnerable when her daughter was very young and couldn’t deal with it then, why did she not deal with the situation when she was older and in a better financial position to do so? In the end my quibbles with the book all centered around the characters in it. Not a one of them made explicable decisions, at least to me.
I think you make an interesting point about shock value. I felt that the author’s desire to spring surprises on us is what lead to much of the unevenness within the book. She would tell you minute details about bathroom lines but gloss over major events so she could stun you with an unknown fact that changed the entire nature of said event. The problem was that those events defined the people and she left the reader feeling dissatisfied and disoriented since we didn’t get the full picture till close to the end.
Leaving that, I will say that I felt the author captured the 1970’s better than she did the 1940’s. I liked the Jaclyn Smith curls Patty was wanting to wear for her wedding and just the general tone of that section of the book. The 1940’s section did not capture a lot of the detail of that time period.
Leigh: The inclusion of taxidermy was just strange. Although I don’t know that I would call Lucy callous. She still was very young at this point. One of the incidences that she lived through would be bad enough, except the author throws the kitchen sink of woes at her. And I didn’t feel that I truly got the full picture even at the end. It was like the photo album that Lucy hid – a snapshot from the past with no enlightenment. How did events of 1941 affect the rest of her life? The author does jump from A, B, C to Z. I was disappointed also that the book didn’t have a 1940’s feel to it. That was one of the reasons I wanted to read it. It sounds like neither one of us were that impressed. I give the author points for trying something different. Before reading this book, I knew very little about the war relocation camps. While I can’t say I learned a lot, I did learn something. My grade is a C.
Maggie: My grade is also C. For someone looking to read a bit about the Japanese internment camps I would try Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson. This book won a PEN/Faulkner award and contains mystery, romance and in some ways it is a war chronicle. There is also a movie by the same name based on the book. I read the book over ten years ago and still remember it with fondness.