I learned about Margaret Dilloway’s How to Be an American Housewife from the June 2010 batch of LibraryThing.com’s Early Reviewer’s List. I peruse the list every month when I get the e-mail alert but I don’t know how to win the “lottery” and obtain a book hot off the presses to review it for the Library Thing site. So I immediately requested a copy from the library and waited (and waited and waited) for the library to get it after its August release date.
The bulk of my Asian-American lit reviews are about different kinds of Chinese-American/Canadian so reading a Japanese-American novel is refreshingly different. However, a sad thought struck me that my predilection in reading leads me to read an awful lot of debut novels but not get further into a particular author’s style. Is this a problem?
Shortly after the second American nucear bomb was dropped, on the nearby city of Nagasaki, Shoko married an American serviceman as her only means to leave her small down and improve her situation in life. She leaves behind in Japan her American-hating brother, Taro, and her first love, Ronin.
Each of the chapters is preceded by an except from a fictitious handbook, “How to Be an American Housewife” that impartially and relatively diplomatically gives you an idea of the struggles of a Japanese army bride in the post-war era would face. This tip advises the woman how to balance between the Japanese customs with American ones:
“Americans are [also] insulted if you do not finish everything on your plate. They consider it wasteful, though overeating only leads to being fat. Your host may be openly hostile if you leave food, though in Japan, this is only politeness. Take small portions and try to finish it all to signal you are done.”
Shoko is in her 70s at the beginning of the book which spans a few weeks of the present-day. From her marriage to Charlie, she has two adult children and a granddaughter, Helena, by daughter Sue (Suiko). Shoko and Charlie are settled in their retired lives and suffering from middle-class American problems like declining health and trying to stretch his pension further. Although she did not love Charlie on their marriage day, she grew to love him while he loved her all along. Shoko is acting weird with single-minded determination to return to Japan before she dies and Charlie’s ability to understand his wife despite her strangeness and faulty English shows his quiet love.
Suiko reluctantly agrees to go to Japan because Shoko is not strong enough, and brings her 12-year-old daughter, Helena. It particularly impressed on me Suiko’s low self-esteem when she pondered, “Somehow I, Suiko Morgan Smith, had raised a kid who was everything I was not–ultrabright, ultratalented, ultraconfident, ultranice. I held my breath for her thirteenth birthday and hoped she wouldn’t morph.” Helena is a really endearing character, young enough to have no filter on her speech, and has a good rapport with her mother who is only 20 years older.
Until Suiko takes on the important task of bringing Shoko’s message to her estranged brother, the mother doesn’t treat her children as being quite at an adult level, “but my mother kept me both close and at arm’s distance.” She always felt her mother viewed the children as great disappointments but Suiko redeems herself in brokering reconciliation in Japan and have a cathartic experience in her motherland.
The ending is one slightly different and built up to with Sue’s unfabulous life in the United States. She has long wanted to be a teacher and realizes the opportunity to get started by joining a school that sends English teachers to Japan. It’s uplifting that even a single mother with debt and, moreover, a child, could uproot and start a new life. Helena’s attitude is fitting, soaking up the attention of being a quarter-Japanese American and trying to out-dress the fashion-wise Tokyo girls. Shoko’s health improves and with her daughter in Japan, it is all the more reason to make her first trip back since immigrating and bringing along Charlie. That is, old married couple they might be, but they will travel together.
I guess the novel hits home on several levels: the mother who parcels out information on an as-need basis such that the children have no idea what her past life was like until it was nearly too late, the staleness of being in America/the western world, and the second-generation child making the big move back.
One can dream about missed opportunities to move back… or find a way to visit often….