Best Friends Forever: A World War Two Scrapbook
Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2010.
This Book Belongs to Margaret Louise Krueger…
(So it says upon opening the cover).
It is April 24, 1942 when Margaret starts this scrapbook. The first page has a photo of herself (aged 14) as well as one of her `BF4Ever'. At first glance, it is a typical young girl's scrapbook, hardly different from those you can buy at any bookshop today, though the design is clearly -- and delightfully -- retro-looking…
But wait… the book is not "retro-looking". It is simply retro. What we have here is a liberal arts / history lesson in the guise of a scrapbook: about WW2 and the internment of thousands of Japanese Americans in the USA (and Canada).
Margaret's BF4Ever is a pretty girl named Dottie Matsuoka … and the next two entries contain a cutting of front-page headline from the Seattle newspaper:
Pearl Harbour Attacked!
and a crumpled-up handbill announcing an evacuation:
INSTRUCTIONS TO ALL PERSONS OF JAPANESE ANCESTRY—
But this scrapbook offers the reader more than historical mementoes. It is also a compelling story, offering sub-plot, antagonists, and the assorted twists and turns and literary devices of good storytelling (as if reality wasn't enough!). For example, Margaret, as her surname suggests, is of German descent. At one point (July 7, 1942 to be exact) someone throws a rock through the front window of her home along with a note saying "Go back to Germany, Nazis". The girl wonders why Germans and Italians (one of the local policemen, Mr. Cortino, also got a rock through his front window) are not being interred like the Japanese.
Another neighbour, Marion Hunter, is the main antagonist of the story; her family has joined the Japanese Exclusion League. And we see later from another newspaper clipping that Marion's father, a letter carrier, was found to be confiscating and burning letters addressed to people in Japanese internment camps (where Margaret had been sending her letters to Dottie). "I know who those Jap-lovers are." He is quoted in the newspaper.
In amongst movie tickets, telegrams and letters from her brother, Werner, serving as a soldier ("Loose Lips sink ships," he warns), Red Cross training diplomas, birthday party invitations and other sundry items, is the story of the enduring friendship of Margaret and Dottie. On January 3, 1943, a letter from Dottie arrives, telling of her relief in knowing that her friend did not forsake her after all (remember, her letters had gotten hijacked by a racist letter-carrier).
"--Yours till the horse flies, the board walks, and the sun sets... Dottie...'
The last entry, dated January 10, 1943, is a pledge of eternal friendship, signed by Louise Krueger, the paw print of Roxy Matsuoka (Dottie's dog) and with a place left for Dottie to sign -- when Dottie and Margaret are reunited...
The war is not over yet... and families are separated still by war, but no matter what the future holds, Margaret writes:
"There is one thing I do know for certain:
Whether we're around the corner or around the world.
Dottie and I will be friends forever."
At the end of it all, I read the author's notes and acknowledgements and was, once again I must admit, disappointed to discover that the entire work was really one of fiction: there is no Margaret and no Dottie, but as the author explains, the concept came from her own mother's experience during WW2, witnessing the "disappearance" of a neighbouring family of Japanese descent.
I realize I should be grateful that this is fiction, though the collective experience of both Japanese and non-Japanese Americans (and Canadians) based on these historical events is very real.
And we should all be grateful that the mistakes of the past are being revisited in this way, in the clever adaptation of history through the story of enduring friendship -- and in scrapbook form, to boot.
13 June 2010
Karmel Schreyer writes educational materials for Asian children and is the author of the young-adult novels, Naomi: The Strawberry Blonde of Pippu Town and A Singing Bird Will Come: Naomi in Hong Kong.