Several years ago, I wrote Tallgrass, a novel set in a World War II Japanese relocation camp in Southeastern Colorado. At the time I wasn’t comfortable writing the book from a Japanese point of view. So the protagonist is a Caucasian farm girl living adjacent to the Tallgrass camp. But when my editor at Sleeping Bear Press suggested I write a young reader book about a girl’s experience in a resettlement camp, I realized the story had to be told from the standpoint of a Japanese girl. That may have been presumptuous of me since I’m not Japanese. But I do remember the challenges and moods and questionings of being a twelve-year-old girl, so I believed I could get into the head of my character, Tomi Itano.
Red Berries, White Clouds, Blue Skies is set in the same Tallgrass camp, which is really Amache, located near Granada, Colorado. I chose Tallgrass so that I could give a couple of characters from the earlier book walk-on roles in Red Berries.
I first heard about the Japanese relocation camps in the early 1960s, when a rancher friend in southwestern Colorado invited me to go pheasant hunting. He took me to see the remains of Amache, which was then just cement slabs where buildings had stood and roads bladed into the prairie. I was intrigued and researched the camp at the Denver Public Library, where I discovered that after the war, the buildings were sold to educational institutions to handle the influx of veterans going to school on the GI Bill. Some were sold to the University of Denver, and my journalism classes at DU were held in one of them.
Red Berries, White Clouds, Blue Sky
BY SANDRA DALLAS
Tomi Itano, 12, is a second-generation Japanese American who lives in California with her family on their strawberry farm. Although her parents came from Japan and her grandparents still live there, Tomi considers herself an American. She doesn’t speak Japanese and has never been to Japan.
But everything changes after the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor in 1941. “No Japs allowed” signs hang in store windows and Tomi’s family is ostracized. Things get worse. Suspected as a spy, Tomi’s father is taken away. The rest of the Itano family is sent to an internment camp in Colorado. Many other Japanese American families face a similar fate.
Tomi becomes bitter, wondering how her country could treat her and her family like the enemy. What does she need to do to prove she is an honorable American? Sandra Dallas shines a light on a dark period of American history in this story of a young Japanese American girl caught up in the prejudices and suspicions of World War II.
AN EXCERPT FROM
The Sign on the Door
Tomi stopped just outside the grocery store where her mother always shopped and peered through the glass in the door’s window. She loved the smells inside, of saw-dust on the floor and of the bread that came in bright wrappers. Just beyond the door, she knew, were orderly displays of fresh fruit and vegetables—fat strawberries in green baskets, rows of corn covered by papery husks, cabbages as big as a baby’s head.
Most of all, Tomi loved the candy displayed in the big glass case. With a penny in her hand, she would choose from among the jumble of Tootsie Rolls, inky black licorice, and other sweets. Today, she thought, looking through the glass, she would pick two jawbreakers from a glass bowl. The jawbreakers were two for a penny, which meant she and her brother Hiro could each have one.
She pushed the door open and heard the jingle of the bell that announced customers entering the store. But just before she stepped onto the old wooden floor, she spotted a sign taped to the window. Her mouth dropped open, and she stopped so abruptly that Hiro ran into her.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
Tomi turned around. “I left the penny at school,” she said.
“It’s in your hand,” he told her.
Tomi looked down at her fingers, which clutched the coin. “We’re not going in there.”
Tomi took her brother’s hand and tried to pull him away, but Hiro refused to move. Then he spied the sign on the door. “What’s that sign say?” he asked.
“I can’t read it,” Tomi said quickly.
“You’re twelve, and you can so read it. I’m seven, and I can read, too.” He squinted as he sounded out the words. Then he looked up at his sister. “It says ‘No Japs.’ That’s not a very nice word, is it?”
Tomi shook her head and tugged at her brother.
“Mom says the word is ‘Japanese.’ ‘Jap’ is a mean word,” Hiro said.
He read the sign again, then grinned. “It’s okay, Tomi. We’re not Japanese. We’re Americans. We can go in.”
Just then, a man in a white apron came to the door and stared at Tomi and Hiro.
“Hi, Mr. Akron,” Hiro said. She and Tomi had bought candy from Mr. Akron ever since they could remember.
Mr. Akron looked uncomfortable. He made a shooing motion with his hand. “Go on, kids. Scram. Can’t you read the sign?” He wiped his hands on his apron.
Tomi stared at him a moment, then said, “Come on, Hiro. Let’s go. They don’t want us here. Besides, who cares about that old candy anyway?” She looked at the ground instead of at her brother or the grocer. Her face was red as she stared at the sidewalk, wishing her mother had never given her the penny. She wanted to be anywhere but in front of the store where the man thought she was a Jap.
“How come we can’t come in?” Hiro asked.
The grocer ran his finger around the inside of his collar. “You Japs bombed Pearl Harbor,” he said, then turned and went inside, closing the door.
“Me and Tomi didn’t bomb anybody,” Hiro called through the glass, but Mr. Akron ignored him.
“Come on, Hiro!” Tomi yanked her brother along the sidewalk. She walked with her head down. Her hair hid her face, she hoped nobody would recognize her. She had never been so embarrassed in her life.
“I don’t understand. What’s Pearl Harbor?” Hiro asked, stumbling along beside his sister. “Why won’t he sell us candy?”
Tomi turned the corner and headed toward a park. It was the long way home, but they weren’t likely to run into any kids they knew, and that was good. She didn’t want anyone to find out what had just happened.
They reached a bench, and Tomi sat down, Hiro next to her.
“What’s Pearl Harbor?” Hiro asked again.
Tomi took a deep breath. “It’s a place in Hawaii. The Japanese bombed our American ships there, and lots of sailors were killed.”
“Jeepers!” Hiro tried to whistle through his teeth, but his front teeth were missing, so the sound came out like a rush of wind. “How come they did that?”
Tomi shook her head. “I don’t know. I heard it on the radio, and I heard Mom and Pop talk about it, but they stopped when they found out I was listening. So I don’t understand everything. I just know President Roosevelt declared war on Japan.”
“But why won’t Mr. Akron let us into his store?”
“I guess he thinks we’re spies or something, you know, like they talk about on the radio.”
Hiro thought that over, then asked, “Spies? Who are we supposed to spy for?”
“Japan,” Tomi answered.
“But we’ve never been there. Heck, Tomi, we don’t even speak Japanese.”
“Mom and Pop both came from Japan, and our grandparents Jiji and Baba still live there.”
“We don’t even know them,” Hiro said.
Tomi shrugged. “I don’t understand it, either. We say the Pledge of Allegiance every day in school, and we salute the flag. Pop always told us he and Mom were the best Americans because they chose to live in this country; they chose for you and me and Roy to be born here.” Roy, their older brother, was sixteen.
“Are we going to tell Mom about the sign?” Hiro asked.
Tomi looked down at Hiro. “I don’t know. Maybe we should so that she doesn’t shop there.” Tomi didn’t like the idea that Mr. Akron might be rude to her mother.
The two of them sat on the bench, not talking for a few minutes. It was winter, and although snow didn’t fall in their southern California town not far from the ocean, the weather was cold. Tomi felt the chill and shivered. She started to tuck her hands into the sleeves of her sweater, then realized she was still holding the penny. “Those jaw-breakers would probably break our teeth. I don’t want one anyway,” she told her brother.
“Me neither,” Hiro said. He grinned, and Tomi punched his arm.
“Besides, you don’t have enough teeth to chew one,” she said.