By Suzanne Lieurance (Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 2009, 160 pp., $14.95, paperback)
Twelve-year-old Harry Yakamoto lives for baseball. Growing up in Cedar Grove, a small town in Central California with only a handful of Japanese Americans, his peers do not allow Harry and his pal Mike Nagasawa to play on a team. It isn’t until Harry and his family are forcibly removed to the Manzanar Relocation Center that Harry achieves his dream of being on a real team.
This work of historical fiction set during the 1940s follows Harry as he tries to understand why the government is forcing him out of the apartment over his family’s restaurant. “Everyone on the bus was silent. They were all staring out the window in disbelief. I studied the faces of all the people on board. There were old men and women like my grandparents; fathers and mothers with young children; and then kids like Mike, Mary, and me. It seemed to me that not a single face looked like a threat to the United States.”
The sights and sounds at Manzanar are shocking: “The wind blew all the time. It made a high-pitched whistling sound as it echoes across the valley, stirring up dust and dirt as it went … it felt strange that every single kid in the place had a Japanese face … Neither Mike nor I had ever seen this many Japanese Americans in our lives. It felt like being at a family reunion where you don’t know most of the people.”
After arriving at Manzanar, despite the primitive living conditions, Harry enjoys not having to work at the family restaurant or go to school. He notices, however, that his father and grandparents do not enjoy the free time: “I soon learned that grown-ups needed work or something that made them feel useful.” When his family finds work in the camp mess hall, not only does the food improve, but their morale improves.
Harry eventually becomes a baseball team captain, and is noticed by a sympathetic camp guard who offers him lessons in pitching a fastball. Previous to arriving at camp, his family frowns upon Harry’s devotion to baseball, so he is surprised to find them in attendance at his first game. His father later confides that the camp guard appealed to the family on Harry’s behalf, explaining that Harry needed their support to win the game.
Two parts of this novel are somewhat jarring in their lack of development. In the final pages Harry inexplicably decides that he has a crush on Mary, the girl he has consistently described as a tagalong, a pain, and someone who made him want “to puke.”
Also the removal of Mike’s father, a fisherman, by the FBI in December 1941 is an overlooked facet of the story. Not until more than four years later, in March of 1945, is there another mention of him. Suddenly there is news that he will rejoin his family. The author gives no explanation of where he has been, only that he had written letters to the family, and was “okay.” This seems undeveloped and vague.
Suzanne Lieurance is the author of 20 other books for children including other historical fiction about sweatshop reform and the space shuttle Challenger. “The Lucky Baseball” is suitable for readers in intermediate grades and middle school.
If you are interested in the role baseball played in the relocation camps, I recommend “Baseball Saved Us” by Ken Mochizuki and “Through a Diamond: 100 Years of Japanese American Baseball” by Kerry Yo Nakagawa.