Weedflower, by Cynthia Kadohata, is a Cybils shortlist title for Middle Grade Fiction. It's told from the perspective of Sumiko, a young girl born to a Japanese immigrant family in the U.S. during World War II. Weedflower chronicles the treatment of Sumiko's family, as the older men not born in the U.S. are shipped off to a virtual prison, and the rest of the family is sent to a detention camp in the desert. Their property, not to mention their dignity, are stripped away because of fear caused by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Sumiko, however, maintains hope through her passion for growing flowers.
This book is written in a simple, easily accessible style, but tells an important story. Although set in the 1940's, Weedflower carries implications for today, in how we treat people of Muslim descent. The story is a window into what it's like for people to be mis-treated, at the hands of their own country, simply because of their ethnicity. It shows how unfair and greedy people, including the government, can be (as when the Japanese were forced to sell their possessions for pennies on the dollar). It also illustrated what can happen to people when their rights, and their ability to strive for success, are taken away. Some of the children run wild, and steal things. Some of the young men give up hope, and lie around all day. Here is an example of the boredom and hopelessness of the camp overtaking Sumiko:
Sumiko felt the ultimate boredom closing in on her. The ultimate boredom wasn't dread of the next year or of what the government might do next; it was dread of your own mind, dread of the next day, the next hour, the next minute. You could lose your mind at any time. Like one morning, for no good reason, Sumiko actually stomped on a butterfly that landed in the dust. After she moved her foot, she saw the squished bitterly and wondered what had come over her. She hadn't thought about it beforehand, but had just suddenly stomped on the poor butterfly. She figured maybe she'd had a sudden attack of the ultimate boredom, and then when she'd seen the dead butterfly she snapped out of it.
There are examples of non-Japanese Americans who do the right thing, too. A young woman volunteers to teach the Japanese kids at the internment camp, despite difficult surroundings. A woman takes time to write to the Japanese woman whose house she is now living, to let the Japanese woman know that the other woman is taking good care of her dog. The Japanese woman sobs with happiness. Christmas presents are donated to the detention camp for the kids. The examples stand out, like the flowers that the Japanese grow from the dusty ground of their camp.
The characterization in Weedflower is quite strong. Many of the characters, especially Sumiko, her friend Frank, and her cousin Bull, feel real. Their characters are mostly revealed through action, rather than being described. This is especially true of Bull, Sumiko's quiet, strong cousin, who intervenes when he see the opportunity, to keep things running smoothly.
A scene that I think will resonate with kids occurs early in the book, before the family is sent to a detention camp. Sumiko, the only Japanese girl in her class at school, is excited to be invited to her first birthday party. She dresses up, and her uncle spends precious money for her to buy a present. However, when the parents at the party learn that she's Japanese, they quietly and politely ask her to leave. Here is what Sumiko thought afterward
Like anyone, Sumiko had known momentarily embarrassing moments, but right now she felt so overwhelmingly humiliated that it was as if nothing in her life would ever be the same again, as if everything she did -- disbudding flowers, heating the water, cooking rice -- would be different from now on. In the future, she wouldn't be Sumiko who was disbudding flowers, she would be Humiliated Sumiko disbudding flowers. She wouldn't be Sumiko heating water and cooking rice, she would be Humiliated Sumiko heating water and cooking rice. And right at this moment she wasn't just Sumiko sitting along on the bench, she was Humiliated Sumiko.
Overall, I think that Weedflower is strong on theme and character, and a detailed portrayal of life among Japanese immigrants during World War II. It's an enjoyable read, but it doesn't have a strong "what happens next?" sort of plot. I think that it's a book that adults will like, and that some kids will enjoy, but that others may find a bit slow-paced.
Author: Cynthia Kadohata
Original Publication Date: March 2006
Age Range: 10-14
Source of Book: Purchased it. A Cybils shortlist title for Middle Grade Fiction.
Other Blog Reviews: Fairrosa's Reading Journal, Semicolon, Nina's Newbery, A New Adventure
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.