What I Don’t Know Fills Volumes

When I make an error in one of my books, one or more of my sharp-eyed readers generally writes to point it out. In this case, in Sins of the Fathers, I misstated Suzanne Nishikawa’s history when I said that her great grandparents were US citizens. A reader from the Bay Area, Milton Momita, pointed out that people of Japanese heritage were not allowed to become US citizens until 1952 after Congress overruled Harry Truman’s veto of the McCarran/Walter act. I wrote back to assure him that I’ll be working with my editors to correct that error in subsequent editions.

I grew up in southeastern Arizona. Very little about the Japanese War Relocation Centers entered my consciousness back when I lived in Bisbee. Once I arrived at the University of Arizona, the first Japanese American I ever met was a girl named Dawn Masanaga who lived in my co-op dorm, Pima Hall. Dawn was two years ahead of me in school, and we weren’t close. I knew that she came from Tempe where her family raised flowers on a farm along Baseline Road.

As I mentioned above, Pima Hall was a co-op dorm where we did all our own cooking and cleaning. Every girl had a duty assignment each day—cooking, cleaning, serving meals, or doing dishes after meals. Duty assignments were handed out by the house manager while the food manager was in charge of arranging menus and ordering food. By the way, we paid a dollar a day for three meals a day. During her senior year, Dawn was in charge of the food budget. One day when money for groceries was tight, she stood up at dinner and advised us all to “fill up on bread.”

At the time nothing at all was said about her family history. My Japanese War Relocation Center blind-spot remained firmly in place until I moved to Seattle in the early eighties. There was a lot more discussion of it here than back home in Arizona, and until I heard from Milton, I had never given much thought to Dawn’s family history. He was able to check his sources and told me that Dawn’s parents were removed from their home in California and sent to the camp at Poston, Arizona. That’s north of Quartsite, in the middle of the Mohave Desert where it’s desperately hot during the day and bitterly cold at night, and that’s where Dawn and her two brothers were born. No wonder she never talked about her family history, although I wish she had. For years Pima Hall girls giggled behind Dawn’s back at her exhortation for us to “fill up on bread,” but I realize now that hers was the voice of not only experience speaking, but also the voice of terrible hardship. We never knew about that and never cared to know, and for that we all owe her an apology.

This morning Milton wrote again to ask me if I’d consider writing something about the Poston and Gila River camps into one of my Ali books. I started to tell him about the origins of my Sister Anselm character, but then I realized that some of my blog readers might be interested as well, so here goes.

In the late nineties, Bill and I went on a four week Rick Steves tour of France. One of the stops was in Normandy where we visited the D-Day beaches. It was an emotional day. I grew up in Arizona. When I heard the words “Normandy Beaches” I envisioned something akin to San Diego. I had no understanding those towering cliffs stocked with German machine gun nests and sharp shooters trying to take out every Allied soldier who set foot on solid ground on the beaches far below. We saw a news-clip based movie in the basement of the museum where, the moment the lights went down, a man in the row behind us began to sob. I have no idea which side he was on for D-Day, but I know for a fact that he was there.

After the museum, we went to the cemetery. It was a somber, awe-inspiring visit, and it was a subdued bunch of tourists who re-boarded on the bus. As it pulled out, one of our fellow travelers, a woman from San Francisco, said, “Are we going to the German cemetery now?” When I heard her say that, my unspoken thought was, “Which bus do you think you’re on, lady?” That’s what I thought. Thank goodness I didn’t say it.

That night, at dinner, we shared a table with that same woman. Over dinner she told us her story. Her father was a German immigrant married to a US citizen. He was working as a printer for a German language newspaper in Milwaukee at the outbreak of World War II. He was taken into custody and was held in a local jail for an extended period of time where he developed TB. Once the Crystal City War Relocation Center was established in Texas, he was transferred there. By then he was terribly ill. Since medical care was in short supply at the camp, his wife asked if she could go there to help care for him. The Department of Justice replied that she was more than welcome to do so as long as she gave up US citizenship for both herself and her two daughters.

And that’s what happened. The family went to Texas. Sometime after their arrival in Crystal City, there was a POW exchange, and the family was loaded onto a Swedish ship to be “returned to Germany” although the wife and her daughters had never set foot outside the US until they boarded that ship. The father died during the transatlantic crossing and was buried at sea. His wife and daughters spent years as displaced persons in war-torn Europe before they were finally able to make their way back home to the States.

That’s where Sister Anselm came from. I used some of the real details I learned from my fellow Rick Steves passenger to create Sister Anselm’s background. My understanding is that nowadays on that same Normandy Beach stop visitors stop by BOTH cemeteries, and that’s as it should be.

And if Dawn Masanaga of “fill up on bread” fame happens to read this, I hope she’ll be in touch. After more than fifty years I still owe her an apology.

As for Milton? Thanks to you, too, not only for setting me straight on the book detail but also for writing to me again this morning. Without your suggestion in today’s e-mail, I wouldn’t have had anything to write about today, and my Friday morning blog readers would have been up a creek.