Sunday, March 1, 2015

Kirby Larson's Gem of a Scott O'Dell Winner

Generally, I agree with author Gordon Korman when he says that "a book with an award sticker and a dog on the cover means that dog is a goner." (See the previous blog post for how Korman has cleverly responded to this challenge). But there are exceptions to every rule, and Dash, a novel by Newbery Honor author Kirby Larson, is one great exception. Yes, there's a tug-at-your-heartstrings cute dog on the cover of Dash, and the book won the 2015 Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction. Yet, while I won't give away the ending, suffice to say that it's a -- relatively -- happy one.

I use the word "relatively" because Larson's story is focused on a shameful chapter of American history: the internment of 120,000 Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Americans, called the Nikkei, during World War 2 after Pearl Harbor was bombed. In Dash, Larson tells the story of a Seattle girl named Mitsi Kashino, whose life is turned upside down when she and her family are among thousands of Japanese-American forced into barren, make-shift internment camps far from their homes. Mitsi and her family must leave behind most of their belongings, which is bad enough, but things turn tragic for Mitsi when she is prohibited from bringing her beloved dog Dash. Her only consolation is that she is able to find Dash a home with a friendly neighbor.

While Mitsi and her family try to make the best of life in first one, and then another internment camp, Mitsi's keen longing for Dash is a constant ache. She does find some solace in the form of the letters she receives from Dash -- obviously written by his temporary new owner. The letters themselves cheer Mitsi, who finds pleasure in replying with letters of her own in which she describes her challenging new life, including her worries that her older brother is being led astray by some of questionable camp friends.

As she details Mitsi's experiences, Larson helps young readers explore the emotional ramifications of the Japanese internment camps, especially for children. Larson doesn't sugarcoat the deprivations endured by the Japanese in the internment camps: the terrible (and often monotonous) food; the few toilets for so many people; the one-room "houses" for each family; the constant dirt;  the barbed wire fence that prevents anyone from leaving, etc. But, as she highlights Mitsi's resilience, Larson also pays homage to the courage of the Japanese internees, who worked hard to make as normal a life for themselves as possible under extremely trying conditions. As Larson writes of Mitsi: "Because of the camps, life was never going to be the same. But that didn't mean that life couldn't be okay."

Dash isn't a perfect book; the ending, in particular, feels rushed. Nevertheless Larson has written a memorable, important book that offers a thought-provoking look at a still too-little-known event in American history. Dash also is a very readable book, and kids will find themselves engrossed in Mitsi's story and cheering for a happy ending. 

Author Kirby Larson

In an author's note at the end, Larson writes that she got the idea for Dash after reading about a woman named Mitsue "Mitsi" Shiraishi. When the evacuations of Japanese-Americans began in 1942, this real-life, adult Mitsi wrote to Gen. John L. DeWitt, the man in charge of the relocation program, asking if she could bring her much-loved dog, Chubby, with her to the camp. DeWitt's office replied no, and so Chubby was left to the care of a neighbor who kept a diary of his first week, and made it seem as if Chubby himself had written the diary.  A year later, the rules at the camps were changed to allow pets, and the real-life Mitsi was reunited with Chubby.

"Like Mitsi, and maybe like many of you, I also have a dog," Larson writes in the author's note. "I can barely stand to be apart from Winston (her dog) for one day. I can't imagine how hard it was for Mitsi to be separated from Chubby when she had no idea how long the separation would last.  After I heard their story, I began to think about all of the Nikkei -- especially the children -- who were forced to leave their pets behind when they were sent to the war relocation camps. Every story needs a heart hook, and that was mine."

No comments:

Post a Comment