THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Anne Emery’s novel reflected her ‘deep sympathy’ for JA camp survivors

During the first decade after World War II, several novels that centered on the wartime experience of Japanese Americans appeared in print in the United States. Apart from the Hawai‘i-born Nisei author Shelley Ayame Nishimura Ota’s 1951 book “Upon these Shoulders,” none of them was authored by a Japanese American. Rather, they were all the work of white authors such as Florence Crannell Means, Karon Kehoe and James Edmiston, as well as African American authors Chester Himes and Will Thomas.

We can only speculate on the reasons behind the lack of published literature by Nisei authors. Were they unable to produce literature on their wartime trauma, or did editors favor works on the subject by white authors?

Whichever the case, in taking up the subject of Japanese Americans, the non-Japanese authors seem to have found their own voice — in most cases, their works on the subject represented their first published novels. Indeed, one such postwar work, the 1946 young adult work “Tradition,” helped launch its author, Anne Emery, into a notable career as a writer of children’s books.

Anne Emery was born Anne Eleanor McGuigan in Fargo, N.D. in 1907, the eldest of five children of Hugh A. McGuigan, an Irish-born doctor, and his wife Mable, an English teacher. After living in Germany, and then Chicago, the family moved to the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Ill., where the young Anne attended Evanston Township High School and then Northwestern University, where she received a bachelor’s in English in 1928. Following her graduation, she took a tour of Europe and studied French at the University of Grenoble.

Upon her return to the United States, she became a teacher. In 1931, she married John Douglas Emery, a securities broker, but continued teaching school. In 1938 the couple’s first child, Mary, was born. In the years that followed, Anne Emery gave birth to three more daughters and a son, and cared for them and her husband John, who was elected a city alderman (and eventually two-term mayor of Evanston). Although Anne Emery retired from teaching, housekeeping and childcare did not engage all of her attention. Rather, inspired by a teaching assignment with Mildred Batchelder of the American Library Association, she came up with the idea of writing professionally.

At first, Emery later noted, she worked on producing short stories for “slick” magazines, with the goal of switching “when established,” to writing for children. However, she later recalled, she was unable to sell any stories and rapidly developed a distaste for pulp fiction, and so turned directly to writing for a younger audience. After several months, she was able to sell her first children’s stories. The Westminster Press published her six-part serial “The Feathered Serpent,” about the Spanish conquest of Guatemala, in its weekly teenage magazine. By 1944, Emery decided to try writing children’s books, and drafted a historical adventure story, “Bright Horizons.”

Before “Bright Horizons” could find a publisher and make its way into print, however, Emery was attracted to a more contemporary subject. As thousands of Japanese Americans began leaving the War Relocation Authority camps and resettling around Chicago, Emery became aware of their presence. She employed two young Nisei women, and in the process, grew interested in the resettlers’ lives. As Emery stated soon after, “I came to have a very deep sympathy for their problems of making their future, in the face of the prejudice engendered by the war.

As a group they are working intelligently and understandingly on their adjustment.” According to a report in the Pacific Citizen, Emery was inspired to take action by an incident in Evanston when neighbors sought to oust a Nisei family who had rented the home of a Northwestern University professor. She decided to write a children’s book as a contribution to the cause of democratic treatment for the newcomers.

Emery decided to devote her main efforts to caring for the house and family in Evanston, but to write in the interstices of her routine. “My routine for ninety days,” she later claimed, “was to snatch 15 minutes at the typewriter after putting one child to bed or between feedings. I was able to get in twenty minutes after sending the two oldest off to school in the morning, and another half hour or so while the [younger] kids slept after lunch.”

Despite the hurried (and harried) setup, Emery managed to finish the manuscript rapidly, and sold it to the Vanguard Press, a one-time left-wing publisher who had taken up literary publishing (including children’s books by such celebrated figures as Dr. Seuss [Theodore Geisel]). The book, entitled “Tradition,” was published in late 1946. Set in the small Midwestern town of Northridge (a fictionalized version of Evanston), it describes the conflicts stirred up by the settlement of a family of former camp inmates, the Okimotos, into a community of old-established families attached to tradition and intolerant of new families and new ideas. The principal action takes place in the town high school, where the teenage Okimoto children, Dorothy and Charlie, face racist hostility — not because they are incapable of fitting in, but because they do so well. As reviewer Mary Lamberton Becker perceptively commented in the New York Herald Tribune, “Perhaps their reception would have been pleasanter if their grades had not been so high, but the newcomers, knowing from experience that they will have no social life, have put all their energies into doing well at school….It is bad enough to have a racial minority settled in your midst without its carrying off a majority of the school honors — at least that seems to be the underlying feeling of the school. Among the older citizens resentment comes from even lower reasons and the Okimotos are made to feel it in many ways.”

The action in “Tradition” is seen through the eyes of Stacy Kennedy, a white teenager who is the Okimotos’ neighbor and classmate. It is Stacy, along with the high school teachers, who take the side of justice in the face of bigotry. Eventually their group bands together to produce a “creed for Americans,” that concludes: “We the undersigned, agree that all members of our community, of whatever race, creed or color, are our brothers, of equal rights as citizens, of equal importance as persons, and are entitled to courtesy, fair play, and honorable recognition, unless by their own actions they forfeit these natural equalities.” The school ends by adopting the creed.

Emery’s strategy in placing a white person at the center of the action, through whom the audience can understand the issue of racial discrimination, seems rather old-fashioned today. However, it was central to her educational mission. As reviewer Polly Goodwin noted in the Chicago Tribune, “It is good to find a story for young people containing a real, present-day challenge, one that has not as yet been successfully met by their elders, but which the author hopefully feels can be handled by the new generation of teen-agers.” The St. Louis Globe-Democrat concurred, calling the book “a timely and thoughtful story about a Japanese family that come to live in a Midwestern town (ever so proud of its American heritage) and of the test in microcosm that follows.” E. L. Buell in the New York Times described “Tradition” as “a thoughtful story, very much needed now.” Pacific Citizen reviewer Sue Kunitomi called the book “sympathetic and understanding.” The educational aspect of Emery’s work was underlined by National Conference of Christians and Jews when it was selected as one of four children’s books out of a list of 23 “good will books” recommended for National Brotherhood Week.

With the success of “Tradition,” her first published book, Anne Emery soon became established as a children’s book author, praised for what a Chicago Tribune reviewer called the “intelligent and understanding fashion” in which she presented young people’s problems. In the following decades she published 24 books. Her work ranged widely in subject matter and audience. Her book “Mountain Laurel” (1948) described life in the remote sections of Tennessee. She also produced historical adventure stories such as “A Spy in Old New Orleans” (1960); “A Spy in Old Detroit” (1963), and “A Spy in Old West Point” (1965), as well as nonfiction children’s books on Joan of Arc and Herbert Hoover. Emery was perhaps most famous for a series of “dating stories,” including “Going Steady” (1950), “Sorority Girl” (1952), and “Sweet Sixteen” (1956), that dealt with the romances of high school and college women.

On the one hand, Emery enjoyed success with these later books — “Going Steady” was even turned into a play.

However, she mostly distanced herself in them from the kind of urgent social issues she had addressed in “Tradition.” Perhaps as a result, despite their higher profile, her later books were not widely reviewed in daily newspapers and national magazines. Still, she did return periodically to examining questions of gender and social justice. As scholar Jill Anderson notes, in the period 1959-1965, Emery wrote a series of four novels whose heroine was Dinny Gordon, a budding woman intellectual who had a passion for ancient history. One of these books, her 1964 novel “Dinny Gordon, Junior,” dealt at length with middle-class suburban prejudice against a Jewish family.
Anne Emery died in Menlo Park, Calif, on July 4, 1987.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at robinson.greg@uqam.ca. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei News.

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