Cynthia Kadohata was born in 1956 in Chicago, side effects Illinois, and is of Japanese-American heritage. Her grandparents married in Japan and then emigrated here, and her mother was born in southern California. Although Ms. Kadohata was born in the North, she spent a good deal of her childhood in Southern states, during an interesting time, racially speaking. She received a B.A. from the University of Southern California, and has studied on a graduate level at a couple of venerable institutions. Many of her novels feature east Asian-American protagonists in coming-of-age stories. This volume, from 2004 and intended for middle-grade readers, is no exception, and it won the Newbery Award.
Katie Takeshima’s sister, Lynn, is her world. Lynn is four years older, and she protects her sister as much as she possibly can. When the family’s Asian grocery store goes under in the mid-1950s, the family moves to Georgia where Mr. Takeshima can get a job in a chicken processing plant. The world is very different down there; it’s a small town and there are only 31 Japanese people out of 4000 residents. Many people won’t talk to them, but Katie’s fine. She has a best friend already — Lynn. Even though the family struggles with finances and working so many hours a day in awful conditions, and even though the two grow up and Lynn makes other friends, the sisters remain close — until Lynn gets sick.
Having read Ms. Kadohata’s bio, it’s obvious that she took many elements of this particular story from her own life. She lived in the South while her father was a chicken-sexer (identifying the boy-chicks from the girl-chicks) in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as did our protagonist. Katie and her parents were all born in the U.S., as were Ms. Kadohata’s family. I’m sure that the racism that Katie experienced was based on what the author experienced — both racism and classism, actually. Not only was Katie’s family looked down upon for being not-white, but they were considered lesser for having a working-class job as well, and for Mrs. Takeshima having to work full-time. I’m actually surprised that Katie seemed as unconcerned as she did, but I suppose her age — she was in her early teens when the book ended — had something to do with that.
One point the book made, and I have to assume it was intended, was why unions had been necessary in the first place. Chicken sexers worked on shifts sort of like firefighters — they were expected to be at the factory ’round the clock just in case a batch of chicks hatched. Of course, they didn’t have the relatively nice settings of firehouses, what with beds and things to do in one’s leisure time, and they didn’t have the relatively nice hours of firefighters (who work something like 24 hours on, 48 hours off). The other workers were not allowed to have unscheduled breaks, so they were given pads in case they had to use the bathroom at an inconvenient time. Whatever one can say about the unions today, it’s obvious that the chicken-processing plant workers needed something to guarantee that they would be treated in a humane fashion.
This is not a happy book in so many ways. Overall, it felt very melancholy, and there was a lot of accepting of bad things that happened. Towards the beginning, the family stays at a hotel and is forced to stay in a back room and pay $2 more because they’re not white. Mr. Takeshima pays without any particular complaint (except to say that he’s neither black nor Mexican). In so many ways, the Takeshimas stole happiness when they could, rather than accepting it as their due. I think this is definitely an important book to read, especially for those who want to understand the roots of the attitudes of current Americans, but I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily an easy or pleasant book to read. 5/5 stars.