For the past four years, I’ve been teaching poetry as part of my social justice as creativity unit in Composition II. I’ve taught several different poets–including favorites Katie Ford, Marvin Bell, and Yusef Komunyakaa–but have also been turning to novels in verse as a means of making the poetry more approachable to young adult students. I taught an excerpt from Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming (and I will read the whole thing this CBR, for sure), Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover, and Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out and Back Again this last school year. My friend F recommended Dust of Eden to me, so I was eager to give this novel a spin, especially since it focuses on internment during World War II.
Like so many verse novels for young adults, Mariko Nagai uses concise words, phrases that evoke a scene, description or dialogue, and deliberately broken lines in order to convey a novelistic effect in Dust of Eden. The narrator is Mina Tagawa, a middle-school-aged Japanese-American girl, who loves her family, choir, her best friend Jamie, and her cat Basho. She considers herself to be of two worlds, but when the United States enters World War II, she is suddenly and forcefully placed into a new world: that of Foreign Other. She is repeatedly called terrible names, her father is threatened and taken away “for questioning,” and her family is eventually forced to “evacuate” to an internment camp in Montana, a far cry from their beautiful Seattle home. Mina struggles to keep her spirits up as her family is broken and fractured time and again, just as she struggles to reconcile the two parts of her identity.
This book is sad and wonderful all at once. Nagai uses simple words that carry huge implications. Mina’s voice is powerful and winsome at once–I wanted to hug her and be her friend. I had read Yoshiko Uchida’s The Invisible Thread last year, which was an incredible first-person account of internment, but this was an excellent glimpse, as well. Nagai does not shy away from the horrible indignities that Japanese-American citizens suffered, but she also complexifies the issue when discussing why some of these people still consider themselves to be American. Because they are.
I am so glad I read this book, and so glad it rounded out my Double Cannonball. On to the triple header!