NWAW’s October book recommendations

By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly

“The Scent of Sake”
By Joyce Lebra
HarperCollins, 2009

“Let a woman enter the brewery and the sake will go sour.”

All her life, Rie has heard these words. But as the sole heir to the House of Omura, one of the most respected families of sake brewers in Kobe, Japan, she knows she must learn as much as possible about the trade in order to carry on the tradition.

Unfortunately, things are not that simple in 19th century Japan. In this male-dominated society, Rie learns from her mother that she must “kill the self,” swallow her feelings, and push her personal desires aside. This becomes especially true when her parents arrange for her to marry Jihei, the son of another brewing family.

In a relationship devoid of love and respect, Rie must learn to cope, especially when she takes in her husband’s illegitimate children with a geisha.

For a young woman in the 21st century, some aspects of “Sake” were difficult for me to read without becoming angry or at least indignant. These aspects include Rie’s arranged marriage, raising her husband’s children, and having to hand her family’s business over to such an inept man.

Despite the obstacles, Rie’s courage, intelligence, and determination allow her to become a force to be reckoned with.

In the face of tragedy — and there are many throughout her life — Rie remains strong and steady as she works to bring the House of Omura above the other sake breweries.

Although Rie is a strong and admirable woman, she is not without her flaws. Her single-minded determination to do what is right for the family business sometimes comes at the expense of others, which she does not always realize.

What I love about Rie is her ability to overcome the obstacles she faces as a woman during this time. Her beliefs and values never waver in the face of all that she has to deal with.

“The Calligrapher’s Daughter”
By Eugenia Kim
Henry Holt and Company, 2009

It’s not always easy to do as you’re told.

For Najin Han, it is especially difficult.

With a modern mother who encourages her strong will and a father who wants to cling to Korean tradition — especially as Japan gains control of his country — the smart and headstrong daughter of a calligrapher finds growing up in Korea more than a little difficult.

As a young girl, Najin is energetic, curious, and easily excitable. However, her father finds her disrespectful, and he rarely wants to spend time with her.

Such an attitude could easily break a young child’s spirit, but what I love about Najin is how she rarely allows her father’s cold demeanor to break her.

For the first eight years of her life, Najin is educated at home. However, when her family’s church opens a school for girls, Najin’s uneducated mother, who had longed to go to school when she was a girl, immediately jumps at the chance to enroll her daughter. Najin’s father, not seeing the need for a girl to be educated, is more hesitant. He eventually gives in.

The early years of Najin’s life are filled with the dichotomy of her parents’ viewpoints, which comes to a head when she is 14 and her father arranges for her to be married. Najin’s mother goes behind his back and sends Najin to serve in the king’s court.

The journey Najin embarks on when she arrives is once again filled with the same dichotomy she grew up with, that of modernity and tradition.

It’s chilling to read about some of the acts that take place in Korea under Japanese rule.  Najin is a character to be admired because in her increasingly oppressive world, she does not back down from the fight to improve her country’s future. Her perseverance in her search for freedom is something we can all learn from.

“Weedflower”
By Cynthia Kadohata
Aladdin Paperbacks, 2006

Making friends does not come easily for Sumiko.

At the age of 12, she prefers dirt to dolls and working on her family’s farm to playing. She is also Japanese American, which, during the early 1940s, is an ethnicity that does not work in her favor.

Before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Sumiko had already endured prejudice and discrimination. After the attack, her entire world is forever changed.

Throughout her life, Sumiko had grown accustomed to being treated like a second-class citizen by whites, but when she and her family are relocated to an internment camp on a Mohave reservation, she soon learns that Japanese aren’t welcome there either.

I’ve learned about World War II and the Japanese internment during school, but I was very surprised to learn that American Indian reservations were used as camps. This fact was quite an eye-opener for me, and I think it would surprise others as well.

Despite feeling lost and alone, Sumiko endures the internment. She grows a garden with her neighbor, Mr. Moto, to keep busy. They enter into a camp contest, and she even begins making friends.

One friend in particular is Frank, a young Mohave boy from the reservation. Sumiko and Frank’s friendship blossoms over time as they learn that neither of their respective races has received the best treatment in life.

The two youngsters’ relationship shows that no matter how dire things may be, true friendship will help one through tough times. The youngsters show readers what it means to be a friend, which I think is something many of us often forget.

Making friends may not come easy for Sumiko, but when she makes them, she invests herself in the relationship, which I think is very rare. Sumiko’s fierce loyalty to Frank and her other friends gives me hope that there are more people in the world like her than I think. ♦

Samantha Pak can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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