Review of Silver Like Dust by Kimi Cunningham Grant
Overview from www.bn.com: The poignant story of a Japanese-American woman’s journey through one of the most shameful chapters in American history.
Kimi’s Obaachan, her grandmother, had always been a silent presence throughout her youth. Sipping tea by the fire, preparing sushi for the family, or indulgently listening to Ojichan’s (grandfather’s) stories for the thousandth time, Obaachan was a missing link to Kimi’s Japanese heritage, something she had had a mixed relationship with all her life. Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, all Kimi ever wanted to do was fit in, spurning traditional Japanese culture and her grandfather’s attempts to teach her the language.
But there was one part of Obaachan’s life that fascinated and haunted Kimi—her gentle yet proud Obaachan was once a prisoner, along with 112,000 Japanese Americans, for more than five years of her life. Obaachan never spoke of those years, and Kimi’s own mother only spoke of it in whispers. It was a source of haji, or shame. But what really happened to Obaachan, then a young woman, and the thousands of other men, women, and children like her?
From the turmoil, racism, and paranoia that sprang up after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, to the terrifying train ride to Heart Mountain, Silver Like Dust captures a vital chapter the Japanese-American experience through the journey of one remarkable woman and the enduring bonds of family.
Silver Like Dust is an unusual title for a slightly unusual book. The book centers on the story of the author’s grandmother’s experiences during World War II. Obaachan, Japanese for grandmother, is the name that the author uses to refer to her as throughout the book. One of Obaachan’s first conditions to telling her story is that she and the other players remain anonymous.
The surprise for me was when it finally dawned on me that the book was not a novel like I thought it was when I added it to my holds list of library books. For some reason, it took a few pages of reading for me to catch on to that. I kept thinking how clever it was for Cunningham Grant to write it as though it was a memoir until I realized that it might actually be just that.
I looked it up again online and found out that it really was a memoir. Therefore, most of the story at least, must be true. This only increased my interest.
Some readers were confused it seems by the fact that Ms. Grant jumps in and out of Obaachan’s story and the present time in which Obaachan tells her story to her granddaughter. I didn’t have a problem with this. I could easily follow since the jumps were not abrupt and I think since the author had little choice since the story she is telling is not her own. Showing the present shows not only the connection of what happened in Obaachan’s past to her present but also reminds the readers that the story is being told to Ms. Grant by someone other than herself.
Keeping all that in mind, I was surprised that the story flowed the way it did. Perhaps this is why I thought it was novel instead of a memoir. When the writer has to stick to the facts, it sometimes makes transitions difficult. I know this first hand.
Nevertheless, this story is more than the tale of a young Japanese woman’s experience in an internment camp during World War II. This is the tale of a reunion between grandmother and granddaughter. That is what makes it special.
I really came to like both Obaachan and her granddaughter through this book. I think I see what makes them tick. I like the openness and honesty between them.
Of course I also learned what I wanted to learn in the first place—what life in an internment camp was really like and how the Japanese people sent there were able to endure it without much protest.
I thought I already knew quite a bit about Japanese culture since my family had hosted at least three Japanese students in our home but I learned quite a bit more from this book. Some things that I saw when I was with them now make much more sense to me, things that they seem to keep hidden from outsiders. All of this is thanks to the author’s candid observations and discussions with Obaachan. This book is really about humanity. I recommend it highly.