The book: The Translation of Love by Lynne Kutsukake
What it’s about: In post-WWII Japan, under the U.S. occupation led by General Douglas MacArthur, the Japanese people struggle to find their footing in a changing political climate. A Japanese girl named Fumi is desperately seeking her missing older sister, Sumiko. With the help of her friend, Aya, a recently repatriated Japanese Canadian girl, she writes a letter to General MacArthur, imploring him to help her find her sister.
What I thought: I really enjoyed this book, from the characters to the story to the way Kutsukake structured the book. Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different character, and these intertwining threads serve to pull the reader along in the book, making it hard to put down at times. Through the characters, we get a sense of a wide range of experiences for people of Japanese decent during this period of history. From Japanese Canadians living in interment camps, to Japanese families who lived through the war, to Japanese Americans working in Japan for the U.S. military, I really enjoyed reading so many different angles. Starting this book, I knew about interment camps (another excellent novel about Canadian interment camps is Obasan by Joy Kogawa), but it was eye-opening to get these other perspectives. Another theme throughout the book that I really loved was the subtle commentary on translation and language. There are essentially three different translators in this story, working to help the characters pass along deeply personal and important messages.
From the first pages: “Ever since her sister had gone away, Fumi looked forward to the democracy lunches with a special, ravenous hunger. The American soldiers came to her school once a week with deliveries, and though she never knew what they would bring, it didn’t matter. She wanted it all, whatever it was. Sometimes it was powdered milk and soft white bread as fluffy as cake. Sometimes it was peanut butter, a sticky brown paste whose unusual flavor–somehow sweet and salty at the same time–was surprisingly addictive. The lunch supplements supplied by the Occupation forces reminded her of the kind of presents her older sister, Sumiko, used to bring in the days when she still came home. Fumi’s hunger was insatiable, and although she couldn’t have put it in so many words, some part of her sensed that her craving was inseparable from her longing for her sister’s return.”
The book: Ravensong by Lee Maracle (1993)
What it’s about: This novel is set in the 1950’s, in a small First Nations village on the Pacific Northwest Coast. The main character and narrator, Stacey, is the only one in her community to attend and complete school in “white town”. She dreams of going to university and coming back to teach the kids in her village. The village is devastated by a ‘flu epidemic, taking the lives of elders and infants alike. Throughout the book, Stacey grapples with the divide between her traditional culture and the encroaching influence of white colonialism.
What I thought: This is not an easy read. The story begins at a funeral of an elder on an grey, rainy day, and this sets the tone for the rest of the novel. Maracle is unflinching in her portrayal of the hardship faced by this First Nations village, and, by extension, First Nations people in Canada. Through Stacey’s thought process, and also through the voice of Raven, Maracle is critical largely of “white town” and colonialism, but also at times critical of the villagers who seem caught in limbo; who wish to keep their old ways without acknowledging the threat of the tides of change sweeping over them and washing them away. There is hope in Stacey, who comes to serve as a bridge between cultures, but it is only a glimmer. The oftentimes bleak truths of the story are tempered with the innate sense of humour the villagers possess. It allows them to move through the many tragedies of the story with a certain amount of grace. I believe it’s an important book that invites readers, particularly white readers, to ask ourselves how we’ve been complicit in the devastation felt by First Nations people, and how we can do better.
From the opening pages: “Change is serious business–gut-wrenching, really. With humans it is important to approach it with great intensity. Great storms alter earth, mature life, rid the world of the old, ushering in the new. Humans call it catastrophe. Just birth, Raven crowed. Human catastrophe is accompanied by tears and grief, exactly like the earth’s, only the earth is less likely to be embittered by grief. Still, Raven was convinced that this catastrophe she planned to execute would finally wake the people up, drive them to white town to fix the mess over there.”
The book: Barkskins, by Annie Proulx (2016)
What it’s about: Barkskins starts out as the story of Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, two men who come to North America from France in 1693. Sel’s new life is one of extreme hardship, working to cut down the seemingly endless forests around him. He marries a Mi’kmaw woman and their children struggle to find footing in cultures at odds with one another. Duquet escapes the hard life of a woodsman, first becoming a fur trader and then building a timber empire. He views his children as heirs to the fortune he amasses from nothing. The novel follows the descendants of both Sel and Duquet, who later changes his name to Duke, all the way up to 2013, detailing their relationships with the forest, colonialism and family.
What I thought: I was so taken by this book on many levels. Proulx is a fabulous writer: her prose is beautiful and the depth of her research amazed me. She writes unflinchingly of the horrors of colonialism and the conquest both of the forests of the “new world” and the people who lived in them for centuries before Europeans arrived. I loved how the stories of the two families played off each other, twining together and coming apart like forest streams. I appreciated the contrast between the settler mentality and that of Indigenous people trying to hold onto themselves in a rapidly changing world. It was heartbreaking, but also so necessary to read. Barkskins is a sweeping family history but also a much larger story of habitat destruction, conservation and climate change; it is both historical fiction and a real-world, cautionary tale. I loved it.
From the opening pages: “The forest had many edges, like a lace altarpiece. Its moody darkness eased in the clearings. Unknown plants and curious blossoms caught their eyes, funereal spruce and hemlock, the bright new-growth puffs at the tips of the pine branches, silvery tossing willow, the mint green of new birth–a place where even the sunlight was green. As they approached one opening they heard an irregular clacking sound like sticks–grey bones tied in a tree, stirred by the wind. Monsieur Trepagny said that the sauvages often hung up the bones of a killed animal after thanking its spirit. He led them around beaver ponds protected by almost impenetrable alder queaches, warning that the narrow pathways were moose runs. They passed through wet country. Hollows brimmed with tea-coloured rainwater. The quaking sphagnum, punctuated with pitcher plants, sucked at every step. The young men had never imagined a country so wild and wet, so thickly wooded.”