I try to imagine Grandma and Grandpa young and dating, and what their wedding must have been like, but I can’t. I keep seeing them as they are now, often working side-by-side in the garden or reading the newspaper and sharing stories at the table.
I’ve learned so many things today, but I still don’t know how Grandma and Grandpa ended up here, and what Grandma meant when she said, “We lost everything.” I have even more questions now. Did Grandma’s mom ever go back to Japan to visit her family and the orange grove?
Published by Second Story Press, Obaasan’s Boots joins an increasing body of literature about the Japanese population’s internment in Canada during the Second World War. Like this novel, recent works, such as Kimiko Murakami: A Japanese-Canadian Pioneer and Stealing Home,focus on the internment’s debilitating impact on Japanese Canadians, but they also humanize the individuals from these communities and highlight their resilience in the face of immense adversity. Affirming their presence in a hostile wartime environment that has seen the systematic removal of their rights, those stories also inscribe these communities as an integral and valued part of Canada’s national narrative.
Co-written by Janis Bridger and Lara Jean Okihiro, Obaasan’s Boots takes a different approach by portraying characters within that historical era as well as characters who interpret that era from the contemporary context. Incorporating narrative perspectives from both the past and present, this sensitively told and sobering story revolves around the Japanese internment and explores its connections and continuities with the present. Most of the novel unfolds over the course of a single day and revolves around two half-Japanese cousins, Lou and Charlotte, who help their grandmother with the garden. During this time, the two cousins learn about the painful history that has affected their grandmother Hisa’s family and community during the Second World War. Through these revelations, the cousins develop a greater understanding and appreciation about that seemingly distant past and come to redefine themselves and their relationship with their Japanese heritage.
Oscillating between the past and present throughout the book, Bridger and Okihiro use first-person narration from different characters’ perspectives to dramatize the events in these different time periods. The present context is conveyed through Lou’s and Charlotte’s perspectives whereas the past is conveyed through their grandmother’s. Temporally, each chapter begins in the present and is narrated by either Lou or Charlotte, during which the narrative shifts back to their grandmother’s past before returning to the present at the chapter’s conclusion. In some chapters, additional temporal shifts back to the present occur during their grandmother’s recollections of the past. Through this narrative structure, the authors dramatize the evolution of Lou’s and Charlotte’s growing awareness about their grandmother’s past as well as Japanese Canadians’ troubled history as a whole. Realizing how little they have known about their grandmother, they come to understand why the adults around them have reacted so strongly about the past and the importance of understanding it for their own identities.
The book’s strongest and most valuable aspect is its poignant and candid representation of the historical injustices endured by Canada’s Japanese communities during the Second World War. It could be beneficial for readers to have some knowledge of Japanese Canadian history so that they could better comprehend the Japanese communities’ experiences and the broader political context within which these have occurred. However, it is not necessary for readers to have an intimate knowledge of that era in order to empathize with those experiences. Readers will learn about the forced displacement of the families, the divesting of their civil rights, as well as the loss of their properties, possessions, and savings—all of which have had debilitating impacts on their entire communities, with reverberating aftereffects that persist to the present day. Lou and Charlotte are shocked when they learn how the government systematically stripped away Japanese communities’ rights and freedoms during the Second World War, actions which were justified through racist and misguided perceptions that these communities were associated with the enemy by virtue of their ancestral lineage and geographical origins—regardless of whether they were born in Canada or whether they had ever visited Japan before. The cousins’ grandmother’s family had everything taken away and were relocated to internment camps where they experienced immense hardship until they were finally freed at the end of the war.
Alongside its representation of that historical era, the story effectively portrays Lou’s and Charlotte’s psychological struggles. Both experience a range of mixed emotions as their grandmother’s story unfolds gradually, responses which are realistic as the act of revisiting the past, making sense of it, and conveying it to others is complex for both the teller and listener. It involves a continual process of working through, negotiating, understanding, and coming to terms with what that past means for the people who have lived through it and those who have come after it. Lou and Charlotte are proud and envious of their grandmother’s resilience, but they are also saddened and disturbed by the various tragedies that she has endured prior to, during, and after the war. These events include her brother Toshi’s untimely death from appendicitis, her forced relocation to an internment camp, and the discrimination that her family continues to experience after the war. Lou realizes that, beneath their grandmother’s seemingly tough exterior, there is something delicate and fragile. She starts to understand why their grandmother places such importance on having a place that she can call her own.
Nevertheless, many questions remain unanswered for the two cousins. Neither Lou nor Charlotte can ever fully experience what that past is like as they can only hear about it second-hand and re-create it in their own imaginations. For example, Lou reflects on the unfairness and injustice of what happened to the Japanese community but can only envision what it must be like for the Japanese community during the war, and she wonders why the white side of her family has been treated so differently from her Japanese side.
However, the book ends on a hopeful note that signifies a bridging of the generations. Lou and Charlotte have grown more sensitive towards their community’s past, with both affirming that they should have paid more attention in the past to their parents’ and grandmother’s stories and experiences. Charlotte and Lou redefine their relationship with the Japanese side of their families. Charlotte feels more connected to her grandmother and family as a whole since she has gained a better understanding about her family’s roots and why they are spread out across Canada. She affirms that she is “standing firmly in Obaasan’s boots,” which can be interpreted metaphorically in terms of the new connections that she has established with her family’s collective past and her new sense of self in relationship to that past. Similarly, Lou reflects on what she has learned and believes that they can make a small difference in their own way by remembering their grandmother’s stories as well as that historical past and ensuring that these get passed on to others. Thus, the book’s title, Obaasan’s Boots, speaks to their new mindset and suggests that they can metaphorically walk in their grandmother’s shoes respectfully by honoring that past, remembering it, and passing that heritage on to future generations.
The story’s narrative style may not appeal to all readers. It has a more expository style as Lou and Charlotte state their thoughts and feelings rather than demonstrating these through their actions or other means. For example, Charlotte states that she is grateful because her grandmother has helped her to understand her family’s story and her place within that narrative. Similarly, Lou reflects on how there is still much more to know about her family’s past and affirms that she understands why it is important for her to hear her grandmother’s story now. This is not to suggest that such a narrative style is inadequate because the book does well in explicitly exposing the multitude of thoughts and feelings, some contradictory, that run through their minds as they struggle to process their grandmother’s experiences. However, a consequence of this is that the novel may read more like a nonfiction work rather than a fictional narrative in which readers could immerse themselves. The significant number of temporal jumps throughout the book may also contribute to this effect as well as disrupt the narrative’s flow. For example, the transition of perspectives from Lou or Charlotte back to their grandmother may appear abrupt, particularly when this occurs more than once in the same chapter, since this temporal leap is also prefaced by the date of the narrative segment that their grandmother describes.
Furthermore, the numerous temporal shifts between the past and the present may affect readers’ impressions of Lou’s and Charlotte’s character development which may come across as being somewhat fragmented. With its focus on the historical period in which their grandmother lived, this does limit the space that the narrative devotes to the main characters’ relationship with their grandmother as well as their psychological growth. Consequently, the book’s ending might not feel as satisfying for those readers who may desire a more impactful resolution that results from a more extensive exploration of their characters’ evolving psyches and how these translate into concrete actions in the present.
However, these potential shortcomings are outweighed by the book’s other qualities mentioned earlier. The book is an important contribution to the existing body of literature for young readers that focus on significant periods of Canadian history. It provides a positive message about connecting with the past and feeling proud of one’s roots, rather than attempting to extricate oneself from them. Obaasan’s Boots would be a valuable addition to all libraries that would like to increase the diversity of perspectives and experiences represented in their respective collections. Teachers could use this book as a starting point to discuss the Second World War and the atrocities that have affected not only Japanese Canadians, but also other communities both within and beyond Canada. In terms of the book’s literary qualities, students could explore how the historical context of the Second World War is shaped and brought to life through its various details as well as the how the authors’ choice of first-person narration contributes to the story’s impact. This book could also be included in a children’s literature class or in a thematic unit about works of literature that focus on the Second World War’s impact on people from different communities.
The book’s language is suitable for its intended readers. The back of Obaasan’s Boots has an historical timeline of significant events that readers could research further if they would like to learn more about that time period. In addition, it includes a glossary of Japanese words and phrases that will help readers with understanding the narrative and its specific cultural references.
Janis Bridger is an educator and writer who lives in Vancouver, near the location where her maternal grandparents have lived before getting sent to an internment camp in 1942. To learn more about Bridger, readers can visit her website at https://janisbridger.ca. Lara Jean Okihiro is a writer, researcher, and educator of mixed Japanese Canadian heritage who lives in Toronto. Her creative work focuses on topics such as social justice, dispossession, and carrying the lessons of the past into the future. The book’s illustrator, Yuka Yamaguchi, emigrated from Japan in 2000 and lived in Winnipeg and Kingston before settling in Saskatoon in 2005. She is an artist who works with colour pencils and paper.
Huai-Yang Lim has a degree in Library and Information Studies. He enjoys reading, reviewing, and writing children’s literature in his spare time.