Recapturing and reinventing a young heroine’s Bay Area WWII-era memories

THE LITTLE EXILE

THE LITTLE EXILE

By JEANETTE S. ARAKAWA (Albany, Calif.: Stone Bridge Press, 240 pp., $14.95, paperback)

“The Little Exile” leaps off the page into a 1940s reel-to-reel, with the vivid descriptions of settings, facial cues, expressive emotions and live action that follows lead character Marie Mitsui. Each chapter has a song title of the era, which if you listen closely might be heard softly playing in the background as Marie ambles down Polk Street in San Francisco. Writer Jeanette Arakawa describes her process as putting pen to paper the scenes she sees playing in her imagination.

At 70 years of age, Arakawa enrolled in a class and began writing her story — from the vantage of a young girl, the daughter of Japanese immigrants who run a dry cleaning shop, and whose lives are abruptly upended with the onset of the war. Although the book reads as a memoir based on true incidents, Arakawa describes her work as fiction where her mind’s eye may not be as others recall and her inventive craft of writing fills in details that have become hazy.

The adventure is vibrant as Marie engages with the multiethnic neighbors in her visits to the upholstery shop and doughnut café. She invents a game of dress up as international princesses with her friends of Italian, Norwegian and Mexican descent. Marie learns for the first time what it means “to move” when her best friend leaves and they tearfully separate. Soon after, the Mitsui family moves across town to the Sunset District where they set up shop and build a place to live behind it. When her brother asks why they cannot live in an apartment, her father becomes enraged about “racial covenants,” a concept Marie doesn’t yet understand.

When taunted by kids at her new school for being Japanese, little Marie stands tall shouting down the hill and her spunkiness startles them. Her tenacity and openness become her navigating tools for the tough times ahead. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Mitsui family receives an extended visit by the FBI. After which, moving becomes a constant in their lives as they join the extended family in Stockton’s Japantown, then are forcibly detained at the Stockton Assembly Center, before being sent on a long train ride across the states to a concentration camp in Rohwer, Ark.
“The Little Exile” is a delightful read for all ages — a young heroine who prevails through the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans. A friend told me she yearned for a way to recapture memories of her childhood in Arkansas, and was captivated by the personal story and vivid details in Jeanette Arakawa’s writing. Knowing that my mother and her junior high friends from Rohwer, now well in their 80s, get together in Los Angeles more regularly, I gifted her with this book of memories. Marie Mitsui is as tenacious as a Hayao Miyazaki heroine, so perhaps, rather than a 1940s movie that rarely had Asian faces, you might discover an inspiring animation as you read “The Little Exile.”

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