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Torn Apart: The Internment Diary of Mary Kobayashi, Vancouver, British Columbia, 1941 by S. Aihoshi

Aihoshi, Susan. Torn Apart: The Internment Diary of Mary Kobayashi, Vancouver, British Columbia, 1941. Toronto: Scholastic Canada, 2012. Print.

Admittedly, my long-standing interest in, and familiarity with, Japanese-Canadian history initially made leery, but I now highly recommend this book for anyone from teenagers up (not just Scholastic’s “older girls” target). It deftly handles a transformational episode in the evolution of Canada as we know it today. It manages to encompass complexity, avoids being preachy, and fairly represents a young voice who understands the seriousness of the situation but is still a kid, after all.

Torn Apart is a recent installment of Scholastic’s Dear Canada series of fictional girls’ diaries set during important historical events. My main concern with the book (and series premise) is that distinctions between primary and secondary sources in history are difficult enough to introduce to novice historians without confusing the issue with skillfully-executed, fictional diaries of fictional people. One has to dig deeply to realize this is not an actual diary from a real person (i.e. primary source). On the other hand, it does give a sense of what historians work with in primary documents - the mysterious references, the days with nothing written, the big events missed because they weren’t part of the individual’s experience - while also giving an excellent and comprehensive overview of this complicated historical situation.  

The treatment of Japanese-Canadians in world war two is complicated. We may look back on it with dismay, embarrassment, and disbelief that it ever happened in our multicultural Canada but it highlights that our so-called multiculturalism is actually quite recent and, indeed, not fully complete. There may be temptations by some to treat the “evacuation” or “internment” as an anomaly or, conversely, as proof of a wholly racist culture, but Susan Aihoshi manages to capture elements of both extremes. Racism (or maybe ethnocentrism) was a common theme in political discourse in the Canada (and especially British Columbia) of the day and sticks out in surviving sources such as contemporary newspaper accounts, parliamentary debates, and speeches. At the individual level, however, many “white” or “hakujin” or non-Japanese Canadians were just as baffled by the reaction against fellow citizens who were as Canadian as they were; they were probably equally baffled by their own reactions to the hysteria and propaganda of war. Aihoshi does well to capture the individual antagonisms as well as individual friendships. Extremely importantly, she deals head-on with distinctions between actions of the Japanese at war in Asia (and as a possible threat to North America) and the reality of Japanese-Canadians far removed from that Japan.

Although serious, the book is not dark and there are many light moments. I particularly enjoyed some the references that will be obscure to many modern readers, those not from the West Coast, or those unfamiliar with this history. This is a positive feature that lends a sense of realism to the account since anything from 73 years ago will obviously have unfamiliar references. Sometimes authors go overboard in forcing such references but Aihoshi does not. Just a few examples are Maple Buds, the milkman, Pat Bay, and Revels.

I do wonder if the glossary and maps would be better placed at the beginning of the novel as many readers may not find them in the traditional location (i.e. at the end) until it’s too late. Also, the rough-cut, outer page edges may lend a feeling of diary authenticity, but do make page turning and flipping difficult.

 My leeriness was also allayed by Dr. Michiko Midge Ayukawa being listed in the acknowledgements as the historical consultant. She has been an inspiration to me for many reasons, including her passion for life-long learning. She started a B.A. in History after retiring from a career as a scientist in her 60s then continued on to complete an M.A. and PhD in History, particularly  Japanese-Canadian history. Sadly, in writing this review I discovered she passed away in October 2013. It is a great loss and if this book passed through her expert hands, it is worth reading!

Recommended: 4 out of 4 stars
Reviewer: David Sulz

David is a Public Services Librarian at University of Alberta and liaison librarian to Economics, Religious Studies, and Social Work. He has university studies in Library Studies, History, Elementary Education, Japanese, and Economics;  he formerly taught in schools and museums. His interests include physical activity, music, home improvements, and above all, things Japanese.