September 27, 2014

The novel Garden of Stones is marred by many historical inaccuracies/implausibilities, but is a well told story that has no doubt introduced many to the story of Japanese American wartime expulsion and incarceration.

In the last decade and a half or so, there have been a lot of novels published that involve the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans as part of their plots. The same can be said for plays, movies and TV shows, documentary films, and other storytelling media. I’ll save ruminating on the reasons for this for another time and instead focus on another issue: that of historical accuracy/dramatic license and its importance.


What brings me to this topic is a recent novel, published last year, titled Garden of Stones by Sophie Littlefield. Published by Harlequin, the book and author seem to have quite a following, and positive reviews abound.


At the same time, Alisa Lynch of the Manzanar National Historic Site pointed us at Densho to a review by Terry Hong of the Smithsonian’s Asian Pacific American Center. While Hong found the book well written and gripping, she was troubled by the dramatic liberties taken by the author, in particular the depiction of widespread sexual abuse of women and children at Manzanar by white staff members, something there is no documentation for. “Fiction though Garden of Stones clearly is, that Littlefield chose a historical event, a real-life location and experiences (including actual staff positions!), surely requires accurate depictions,” Hong writes.


Garden of Stones has at its center three generations of Japanese American women whose lives are dramatically altered by the wartime incarceration of elder two at Manzanar. The novel begins in 1978 with mysterious death of a gym proprietor in San Francisco and the police questioning of Lucy Takeda, who witnesses describe as having been at the scene. We then go back to 1941, when Lucy was a beautiful and somewhat spoiled fourteen-year-old only child of Renjiro Takeda, a successful businessman, and Miyako Takeda, described as strikingly beautiful but fragile. World War II dramatically changes the family’s fortunes, as Renjiro is first felled by an apparent heart attack, followed by the forced removal and incarceration of Miyako and Lucy at Manzanar. Lucy adjusts quickly, landing a job as a courier and a charming boyfriend named Jesse. However Miyako is forcibly drawn into an affair with a brutish garment shop owner who is part of a ring of camp staffers who prey on women and children in the camp. When Miyako becomes pregnant and her captor makes it clear that Lucy is next, she embarks on a course of action that leads to her death and to Lucy’s disfigurement. In the 1978 present of the book, Lucy’s soon-to-be married daughter Patty tries to figure out details of her mother’s past from the little Lucy tells her and what if any connection she has to the dead man.


The novel uses the well worn device of cutting back and forth between a later present and the events of the war years, with the events of the past eventually helping to solve the mysteries of the present. This same general device is used in such camp-themed novels as Julie Shigekuni’s A Bridge Between Us (1995), Rahna Reiko Rizzuto’s Why She Left Us (1999) (which also involves mysterious wartime pregnancies and a present day daughter trying to unravel the threads of her mother’s life), Nina Revoyr’s Southland, Jamie Ford’s The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, and I’m sure others I’m forgetting. Naomi Hirahara’s series of Mas Arai mystery novels also generally involve present day mysteries whose solutions involve events stemming from the war years.


The book is well plotted and moves at a brisk pace, though I couldn’t help but think of the movie Psycho when a plot twist in the middle of the book suddenly deposits us at a desolate motel in Lone Pine and introduces a raft of new characters. These Lone Pine sections dragged a bit for me.


Littlefield treats the forced removal and incarceration scenes with appropriate sobriety and outrage. As is often the case in fictional accounts, Lucy’s Issei father and Nisei mother are portrayed unconvincingly, as if in some Issei-Nisei netherworld that is neither/nor. The mother-daughter relationships are probably the book’s strength, and the behaviors of the 1978 characters in particular ring true.


But there’s a bit of a problem regarding historical accuracy. Most of the issues are fairly minor. For instance, the Rafu Shimpo of 1941 is described as a purely Japanese language publication (Louise Suski and Togo Tanaka would no doubt beg to differ) and Littlefield has the Takedas arriving at Manzanar on March 22, which was weeks before such a family would actually have arrived and is even before the very first exclusion order (for Bainbridge Island) had even been issued. A number of the errors might be described as more serious because they impact major plot points:


  • the Manzanar barracks are described as having a central hallway leading to individual rooms with one oil heater heating the entire barracks (each individual “apartment” at Manzanar opened directly to the outside and had its own stove);
  • a fourteen-year old gets a paid job as a courier at Manzanar (I’m not positive about this one, but I’ve never heard of anyone this young having a paid job in camp);
  • one of the characters leaves Manzanar to work as a maid at the previously noted motel down the road in 1943 (though allowed to leave camp for points east, Japanese Americans were not allowed to return to the West Coast until the beginning of 1945).
Perhaps because I had been tipped off by Hong’s review, I actually wasn’t as bothered by the depictions of sexual abuse in Manzanar. For while there is no record of such events, can anyone doubt that such things are plausible given the power dynamics in the camps and sexual and racial dynamics of the day? It would have been helpful, however, for the author to have included an afterword indicating the dramatic license she took in these depictions. (For future novelists out there, I think this type of afterword would be a good idea in any historical novel. About the only camp themed novel I can recall that includes one is David Stuart Ikeda’s very well researched What the Scarecrow Said.)


Which brings us to the question: how much does it matter that a book like this contains these types of errors?


If the goal is for more people to learn about the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans, books like Garden of Stones are important, since they reach populations that are likely to know little or nothing about this topic. Readers of this book will learn about the incarceration while learning about its impact on characters they get to know and identify with. Readers such as these aren’t going to remember the types of details that are demonstrably erroneous. As long as the overall picture of the incarceration is presented somewhat accurately—that what happened was wrong, that those in the camps were Americans, that it had a devastating impact on those Americans, and that we should never do something like this again—I think the existence of books like this is generally a good thing. Perhaps a few of the readers of this book will be compelled to learn more about the history or to read one of the other better novels by one of the Japanese American authors noted above. Maybe that reader will be compelled to speak out when the civil liberties of another group is threatened in the future.


Of course Littlefield should be criticized for not having done very diligent research, or for not consulting with someone—perhaps at Manzanar, where she visited or at Densho[1]—to identify the historical inaccuracies in the novel. Perhaps my pointing these issues out will be helpful to at least some readers.
Yet despite the issues noted, I can’t dismiss this book or recommend that you not read it. Your reaction to it will likely hinge on your tolerance regarding the things noted above. Recognizing that my younger self would have once railed against this book, my older self shrugs wearily and welcomes it to the ever growing body of fictional work encompassing the Japanese American incarceration.

Before you send off your manuscripts to us, Densho does not review manuscripts, but we are happy to answer specific questions about historical events tied to the wartime incarceration.