Review by Hannah Straton
The Japanese internment camps created by the Unites States as a reaction to the Pearl Harbor Bombing is dark time in American history. These camps and the people who experienced them are frequently either forgotten or intentionally ignored.
In today’s world, we need these stories more than ever. Jeanette S. Arakawa’s memoir, The Little Exile (Stonebridge Press, 2017), is told from the perspective of a young Japanese-American girl who was taken from her home in San Francisco and moved forcibly via train to an internment camp in Arkansas with deplorable conditions for close to three years. After near inhumane treatment in the camp, her family made their way back to California to start again from nothing.
In 1940, six-year-old Marie attended elementary school, had favorite superheroes, and enjoyed movies, like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. As a child, she was aware she was different; she didn’t look like Shirley Temple and her parents had accents. She became more aware that her family was different when her father opened his dry cleaning business several towns over, but her parents and brother had to live in the back of their store because the neighborhood had “racial covenants.”
By 1942, soldiers with knife-tipped rifles were handing eight-year-old Marie a number to attach to her bags, her suitcases, and herself. When her number was called, Marie and her family stepped forward so an American soldier could check the numbers pinned on their coats and board them onto a train. There was no destination given; the shades were drawn so they could not identify their location, and the one stop was the middle of the desert to stretch their legs.
On Marie’s tenth birthday, the train arrived at Rohwer Relocation Center. After being “processed,” the family was sent to their new home: “8-2-C. Block 8, Barrack 2, Apartment C.” Marie’s mother ordered a chamber pot quickly; the communal bathrooms were far away and frequently flooded, attracting snakes. Junior-high Marie had the added difficulty of the social complexity with older teenagers. Schools without books, meals without nutrition at times designated by bells, government-issued jobs, and tall barbed wire fences with armed guards threatening to shoot children (looking to play in the only patch of grass) if they got too close to the fence was just daily life in the Rohwer Relocation Center.
In The Little Exile, Arakawa writes with the tone of a child, but the details and observations she chose to include allow the reader to see the world through the lens of an adult who has lived, understood, and reflected. These events seem unfathomable to many Americans in 2017, yet through the young narrator with a childlike mindset to which we can all relate. Arakawa’s The Little Exile is a memoir worth reading. One piece of advice though: be prepared to read it in multiple sittings. My heart needed time between chapters or it would’ve broken.
Hannah Straton is a student in the MFA program at George Mason University. She is working on a full length creative nonfiction project about mental illness. Her essays have appeared in Hippocampus Magazine and in the Kudzu Quarterly Review. Follow her on Twitter @hannahstraton. She’s really cool, promise.