Stubborn Twig

July 27, 2009

Immigrant stories fascinate me. Three of my four grandparents entered the USA from eastern Europe around the turn of the 19th/20th centuries and the parameters of the immigrant experience were strongly transmitted to me by my parents. I also tried out the immigrant experience for myself, moving to Israel in the early 80’s. Since I never discussed immigration (or much of anything else) with my grandparents, I don’t know how my time as an immigrant compared to theirs, but while they were able to stick it out in a “strange country” through two World Wars and a depression, I came back “home” after just two years.

Stubborn Twig traces the stories of several generations of a Japanese immigrant family, the Yasuis. The first Yasuis entered Oregon about the same time that my grandfather opened a tailor’s shop in Duluth. But unlike my forebears, who looked (but certainly didn’t sound) like their neighbors, the first Yasuis were instantly recognizable in lily-white, racially segregated, Oregon, and while they encountered a few friends, they were mostly confronted by wave after wave of bigoted Japanese haters who would try to drive them away. Fortunately, and truly amazingly, the early Yasuis found a way to see America’s promise. Sometimes they had to this from the inside of a prison cell, and the elder Yasuis often had to reminded the younger ones (and probably themselves) that “the land of the free” might not be that day’s reality, or the next’s, but that some day it would come true.

The brilliance of this book bubbles up in several ways. Author/historian, Lauren Kessler, draws a nice balance between the larger cultural-historical forces at work and the personal characteristics of individuals in the Yasui family. Despite the hardships that they faced, the Yasuis were human beings and Kessler never loses sight of this. Kessler also uses a novel, but clever, device to organize the story by generation, rather than by events or dates. Therefore, we learn almost the full story of Masuo Yasui and his imprisonment during World War II. Then, in a later section, we reencounter the war years a second time through the eyes of his children (and, in a still later section, we see how the grandchildren come to terms with their family’s story). This pattern serves the story well because it makes it clear how each generation of Yasuis differed from the ones that came before and the ones that followed.

I began reading Stubborn Twig last March when I found myself on the Oregon coast without a book. The local library had several copies on its shelf for the statewide Oregon Reads program and I was able to complete the first section before returning to Portland. I immediately put a copy on hold at my local library, but I’m glad to say, the book has been so popular, that I was forced to wait four long months before a copy came back into my hands. Fortunately, the story is told so vividly, it was easy to take it up right where I had left off.

I can only hope that everyone in Oregon will read this book. It is so easy to fall victim to lies and prejudice. On p. 212 (paperback edition) Kessler states, “a national opinion poll in 1946 revealed that almost 90 percent of Americans believed that nikkei had spied for the Japanese government during the war.” And then I think of the lies, and damn lies, that we spread today about foreigners, immigrants, our neighbors, and even ourselves.

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