There may not have been barbed wire or fences. Only wilderness surrounding us with nowhere to go for miles. Also, no electricity, no running water.
[Sandy’s mother] Sandy? Sandy . . . over here!
But this was no ghost town. This was our prison. This was our home.
Graphic novels are a narrative format that allows authors to tell a story through a combination of text and image. Written by J. Torres and illustrated by David Namisato, Stealing Home provides a moving and poignant portrait of the Second World War’s impact on Canada’s Japanese community, as seen from the perspective of a young boy named Sandy Saito. It is a welcome addition to the growing number of memoirs and fiction titles in North America that deal with this troubling history. One of the higher profile works published recently is George Takei’s bestselling graphic memoir They Called Us Enemy, which gives a first-hand account of this historical era. More suitable for older readers in high school and up, the graphic novel We Hereby Refuse intertwines three stories of Japanese Americans who each resist and challenge, in their own ways, the American government’s injustices during the Second World War. In Canada, the body of literature has grown in the years since the publication of Joy Kogawa’s important work Obasan in 1981. Besides works for adult readers, such as Leslie Shimotakahara’s After the Bloom and Frances Itani’s Requiem, there are several books for young readers, such as Maxine Trottier’s Flags, Susan Aihoshi’s Torn Apart: The Internment Diary of Mary Kobayashi, Vancouver, British Columbia, 1941/i>, and Michael Kluckner’s graphic novel Toshiko.
Stealing Home is a valuable contribution to the body of graphic novels in Canada on this topic. Spanning the summer of 1941 until the spring of 1943, this book portrays the Second World War’s debilitating emotional and psychological impact upon Japanese Canadians, as seen from Sandy Saito’s perspective. The summer of 1941 is marked by the pivotal moment when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour and its reverberating effects upon the Japanese Canadians for the remainder of the war. The story’s beginning is lighthearted and conveys the Japanese community’s sense of pride and excitement for their baseball team, Asahi. However, when the baseball team loses in the semi-finals, Sandy’s father considers it to be a bad omen. This event is followed by Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941, that, although seemingly far away from Canada, has irrevocable consequences for Sandy’s family and the rest of the Japanese community. Sandy’s relationship with his white classmates and friends changes. They grow suspicious of him, and he is socially ostracized. As the months progress, increasingly restrictive governmental measures encroach on his family’s movements, possessions, and livelihoods. Besides being removed from coastal areas in British Columbia, they are subjected to a curfew and have their possessions seized by the government. In March 1942, a Mountie delivers a notice in person to Sandy’s family that informs them they must leave their house within 48 hours, after which a train will take them away from the city to their new homes.
Although the story is narrated from Sandy’s perspective, the book does not shy away from the harsh realities of the Japanese internment. It mentions how Japanese Canadians are forcibly relocated to isolated camps with inadequate living conditions that become a prime breeding ground for tuberculosis and other illnesses. The homes in these internment camps consist of wooden shacks without insulation or running water, and so Sandy’s family and all the other families need to get water from an outdoor tap. Living conditions are cramped, and many families must share the same dwelling with others. Washrooms consist of outhouses, and oil lamps are used for lighting. When Sandy gets sick, it takes a long time for him to recover. As for Sandy’s father, he is separated from the family and placed into a work camp. Only after a number of months does Sandy see him again.
In its portrayal of this historical period, this book effectively depicts the tragic impact of the internment on different levels. Besides its impact on Japanese Canadians as a whole, Torres also conveys its traumatic impact on children specifically. Through Sandy’s eyes, readers will experience what Sandy and other children have lost. Their childhood years are irreparably scarred as many have been uprooted from the communities that they have grown up in and thrust into an alien environment where they are left to fend for themselves. As shown through Sandy’s experiences, these events have sowed stress and dysfunction in his family, such that he and his brother feel helpless and unsure of what to do to fix it.
In this context, baseball takes on a new significance for Japanese Canadians. The book ends on a note of resilience and hope. The ending brings the story full circle as it ends with the Japanese Canadians playing baseball, albeit under different circumstances. The baseball team comes to symbolize a sense of agency and is a means for Sandy and others to forget their situation, if only temporarily. This is not to diminish the internment’s debilitating impact on Japanese Canadians, but rather to emphasize that they are not simply victims of circumstances beyond their control. It is important to avoid depicting them as victims only because this reinforces a static representation of Japanese Canadians that overlooks the other aspects of their lives. In this story, baseball is a means for Sandy and the others to take solace and assert themselves again by reclaiming something that has been taken away from them.
David Namisato’s illustrations enhance the story’s impact and facilitate the ability of readers to identify with Sandy, the protagonist, and to immerse themselves in that historical period. Some younger readers may find it difficult to connect with a story that takes place in the past, particularly if the protagonist is from a different cultural background. However, Namisato’s visual rendition of this historical period helps readers to imagine that they are witnessing the historical events through Sandy’s eyes. In doing so, readers can better relate to Sandy’s emotions as they know from their own experiences what it is like to feel, for instance, happy, scared, or sad.
As a whole, the illustrations’ colour scheme enhances the narrative’s historical feel and overall atmosphere. Rather than using full colour or solely black and white, Namisato draws the illustrations in black outlines and colours them with black and varying shades of brown. These color choices contribute to the illustrations historical feel as they evoke vintage photographs which may have a sepia-toned appearance. More specifically, Namisato’s illustrative techniques effectively convey the story’s emotional and psychological impact. In one scene, a Mountie arrives to notify Sandy’s mother that her family must be packed up and ready to leave on a train within 48 hours. The image, which has a black background and a closer shot of Sandy’s distraught mother holding the Mountie’s note, serves to heighten the sadness and helplessness that she feels.
Close-up images increase the focal intensity and emotional impact of the image being shown within the frame. They direct readers’ attention to specific people and their reactions as well as heighten the narrative’s emotional resonance. For example, when Sandy and his family are relocated to an internment camp, the illustrations show a close-up of Sandy as he tries to fall asleep, thereby helping to evoke sympathy. These close-ups are also used to convey dramatic moments. For example, the close-up images of the Asahi baseball team in mid-action, as well as the spectators’ enthusiasm, all serve to convey the game’s excitement and energy. Similarly, the illustrations increase the dramatic impact of a particular sequence of events. When Sandy and her mother fall ill in the internment camp, Sandy decides to go and find his father, despite the heavy snowstorm outside. The subsequent sequence of images show Sandy trudging through the snowstorm while coughing, with the final frame showing him collapsed and unconscious in the accumulating snow.
The story also includes illustrations with longer shots—evocative of cinematic techniques—that contribute to the emotional impact. For example, a full-page illustration supplements the narrative at the point where Sandy’s family hears that Japan has bombed Pearl Harbour. This illustration provides a longer shot of Sandy’s father with his body hunched over and hands on his chin while Sandy’s mother stands in the foreground of the frame with her dishes and towel. This conveys the situation’s seriousness as well as Sandy’s parents’ helplessness, as readers will get the impression that they are watching the scene from a bit of a distance.
Stealing Home would be a valuable addition to any school, public, or academic library. Due to its topic, it will contribute value to a library’s body of historical fiction and graphic novel collection. The book’s level of linguistic difficulty makes it suitable for readers ages nine-years- old and up, although younger readers can still appreciate the story if an adult is available to guide them through it. As a classroom text, instructors could use it to engage students on a serious topic, due to its accessible language and the graphic novel genre’s potential appeal for younger readers. However, it would be important to provide some context so that students can better comprehend the book’s events and its historical significance. This is where Susan Aihoshi’s “Afterword” will help as it provides some biographical and historical information about the Second World War and Japanese internment, with a bibliography that readers can consult to learn more.
Although ideal for younger readers, this graphic novel can still be appreciated and enjoyed by adult readers. The book will also lend itself readily to discussion and analysis in an academic context as it could be considered alongside other works of fiction and nonfiction that deal with this same subject. As the book crosses a number of disciplinary boundaries, it could be easily incorporated into courses pertaining to literature, history, or cultural studies, among others. For instance, it could be studied as part of a course about Asian-themed literature in Canada, the evolution of children’s and young adult literature, or the graphic novel genre, itself.
J. Torres has many comic book credits and has also written graphic novels for presses such as Kids Can Press, Oni Press, and Archive Comics. As for David Namisato, he has been drawing professionally since 2005 and currently lives in Toronto. Prior to this, he lived in rural Japan for two years and taught English at six elementary schools. For more information about the author and illustrator, go to J. Torres’ website at https://www.jtorrescomics.com and David Namisato’s website at https://www.namisato.org.
Huai-Yang Lim has a degree in Library and Information Studies. He enjoys reading, reviewing, and writing children’s literature in his spare time in Edmonton, Alberta.