Go Forward with Courage

Sometimes book titles can literally be the hardest part of writing an entire novel. You can spend months or years thoughtfully creating characters, putting them into situations that create drama or suspense for your readers, and crafting dialogue that feels natural and realistic. But once the book is finished, finding the perfect title that feels worthy of the story can be elusive–nothing seems quite right. If you’re lucky, you’ll come across something that strikes like lightning, and you’ll know you’ve landed the perfect title.

That was the case for my latest novel, Go Forward with Courage. A central part of the novel deals with Michi and her family, who are forced to relocate to an internment camp in Arkansas after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. For the thousands of families impacted by the Executive Order to remove all citizens of Japanese ancestry from the west coast, every step of their journeys to these camps took courage. But it didn’t end there. When they were finally allowed to leave at the war’s end to return home, what were they returning to? It varied of course, but for many of these displaced persons, they had nothing tangible to return to.

The title, Go Forward with Courage comes from a quote by a Native American Chief after his realization that he had no other choice but accompany his people to a reservation.

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“When you are in doubt, be still, and wait; when doubt no longer exists for you, then go forward with courage. So long as mists envelope you, be still; be still until the sunlight pours through and dispels the mists — as it surely will. Then act with courage”.

Pocono Chief White Eagle

When I came across this quote while writing the novel, the similarity of the plight of the Japanese-American citizens displaced from their homes to the Native Americans generations earlier seemed incredibly relevant. My character Michi, and the thousands of others like her, would need courage to face the unknown waiting for them when they returned “home” after the war. Some of the images captured from that time period, express more than my own words ever could.

I have so much admiration for the people who rebuilt lives after having them interrupted during the war. The courage it took is inspiring, and I hope that my story does them justice.

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Still a Somber Day 75 Years Later

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On this day, the few remaining veterans who survived the Japanese attacks at Pearl Harbor 75 years ago and can still make the trip, are headed to Hawaii. There will be memorial parade commemorating the day that the fates of the world shifted for so many. Reading and listening to accounts of these survivors prompted me to write a novel that begins on this fateful morning in 1941.

In my novel, Go Forward with Courage, young Jackson loses his father on this day. His father (like my grandfather) is a doctor in the US Navy. Jackson’s father Lieutenant Commander William Lieber is killed while treating injured sailors being brought from Battleship Row.

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Photo Courtesy of The National Archives taken from an official US Navy photograph

Jackson’s mother, Margaret has to decide where to take her children after the death of her husband and decides to go back to where she’d grown up–McGehee, Arkansas. She believes that the war can never touch her children there. Margaret returns home with her children after a long estrangement caused by her decision to marry the son of German immigrants. Her father, a veteran of the Great War, was too consumed with bitterness toward the Germans after his experiences as a POW there to see that William was completely devoted to his only daughter.

 

Meanwhile, in California another family’s life is shattered by the bombings at Pearl Harbor in a different way. Michi’s family owns a grocery store, but soon has to pack their belongings and leave for an internment camp after President Roosevelt signs the executive order that mandates the evacuation of all persons of Japanese ancestry.

Michi’s family ends up at Rohwer “Relocation Center” just a few miles from where Jackson is now living with his grandparents. Jackson and Michi ultimately cross paths and are forced to deal with feelings of hatred and betrayal they both feel due to the circumstances of their lives.

This time period has provided endless fodder for novelists for decades. For me, the appeal of this story was the convergence of two individuals impacted by the same event; the bombing at Pearl Harbor. I wondered how a young man who lost his father to Japanese bombers would feel about coming face to face with so many people in his mother’s hometown that looked like his enemy. And I wondered how a young woman, born in this country and entitled to the same rights as every other American citizen, would feel toward the locals in a place where she’d been forced to go. In researching the novel, I read every first hand account I could come across to gain more understanding of the personal experiences my characters might have had.

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If you’ve read my novel, I’d love to hear from you. If you have any personal experiences or were told stories from the war by your parents or grandparents, I’d love to hear them. World War 2, which America entered immediately after the attacks on December 7, was a defining moment for America. The internment of Japanese Americans during the war is something that should be studied in schools and discussed at length with every generation. If you’re interested in learning more on the subject, I highly recommend you visit Densho.org. If you’d like to read more about the actual camp where Michi’s family lived during the war, there is a museum there. Another great resource for a vast array of information regarding how the war affected Americans is at the National WW II Musuem’s website. Thanks for reading and commenting!

It Takes Fear

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I just finished a phone interview for the local paper near the retirement community in Florida where I will be visiting next weekend to speak with their book club. The club is reading my novel Go Forward with Courage, and the reporter asked me about my motivation for writing the novel. This is a question not easily answered, but here is my response in a nutshell.

The seeds for Go Forward with Courage were planted by my grandfather years ago when he made a simple comment that has stayed with me. He said, “If my parents had been from Japan instead of Germany, I would have been in a camp during the war rather than fighting for my country.” The second seed was planted by my high school history teacher when he told us what had happened to the Japanese Americans during the war, and how much grace the families showed throughout their hardships. Then as a college student, I viewed some propaganda films made by our government to justify the internment of citizens who hadn’t been charged with any sort of crime. They were shown side by side to Nazi propaganda films and were so similar in nature that I felt sick.

There is another, more pressing reason that I wanted to write my book when I did. I honestly believe that this could happen again. All it takes is enough fear. We Americans value civil liberties and freedoms to be sure. But we also value our safety, and especially the security of our children’s futures. For the Americans of the 1940’s, the catalyst to provide the necessary level of fear was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. What would it be for modern day Americans? The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 was a start. Recently the uptick in violence from Islamic extremist groups has added more fuel to the fire.

In my novel, Jackson has to come to a point where he can separate his hatred for the Japanese who caused the death of his father from the innocent civilians locked behind bars near his grandparent’s farm. The challenge for us today is to separate the actions of extremists from those who are simply wanting to live a peaceful existence in a country which was founded on religious freedoms. This is one aspect of history that I certainly don’t want to see repeated.

Photo credit: Densho.org

Japanese Interment: Not Only Important for Historical Perspective

When my high school history teacher first taught us about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War 2, I was shocked that something like that had happened. But it was “ancient” history to a teenager. I honestly didn’t see the relevance of the topic to my life in the 1980’s.

As I began researching to write my novel, Go Forward with Courage, the relevance to modern times became increasingly clear to me. While the novel was being edited, my husband drew my attention to an interview given by a retired US Army general who suggested the solution to Islamic terrorism was to lock up young Muslim men in camps. (Watch interview here)

Who gets to decide which Americans are “disloyal”? You might want to believe that the FBI had compiled credible evidence against these Japanese American citizens who were placed in camps, but that was not the case. Their ancestry alone was the sole deciding factor in their internment.

Someone shared this article on my Facebook page this morning, and I thought it was a wonderful example of how little most Americans understand about this topic. A middle school class researched their ancestry and one young man discovered that his grandmother was born in a horse stall during internment.

George Takei’s new Broadway musical Allegiance also tackles this painful period in history. The show is earning rave reviews and features one of my favorites–the beautiful and talented Lea Solonga. I can’t wait to see it myself, and I hope that it continues to shed light on this important subject. Especially since the subject is even more relevant today than it has been since the war.

Can History Repeat Itself?

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As many of you know, my recently completed novel, Go Forward with Courage, is set in and around a Japanese Internment Camp in Arkansas during World War 2. In talking with people about the book’s subject matter, it has come up several times that this sort of thing could happen again in this country if the general populace became scared enough. Well, apparently this wasn’t a far-fetched notion on my part to speculate about this sort of situation happening again. It is now being proposed as a solution to the types of terror attacks we just witnessed in Chattanooga.

And not from some “fringe” group of fear mongers, but from a former General and Democratic presidential candidate. My initial thoughts after reading this article were, “Who gets to decide who is radical?” and “What kind of evidence will our government need to detain these individuals?” Let me tell you what my research clearly showed me regarding the last time our government chose to lock up loyal citizens for the “greater good” of society: the FBI needed no concrete proof of wrong doing to imprison leaders in the Japanese American community. Within hours of Pearl Harbor, these men’s homes were searched and they were taken in for questioning–many of them didn’t see their families again for months if not longer. Eventually, entire communities of people were transported across the country and held behind barbed wire for years.

As an American, this alarms me. I wholeheartedly support our military and despise the types of terrorist acts we’ve seen in recent years. But I also value civil liberties and have respect for different cultures and belief systems. If you take the time to get to know people of the Muslim faith and talk to them about their beliefs, you will find that most of them detest this type of violence against fellow citizens as much as we do.

I’m not nearly as eloquent as the man who penned these words while imprisoned at Dachau, but his words still ring true today. “In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.”Pastor Martin Niemöller, 1945

Our challenge as Americans is to find the balance between protecting the general public without infringing on other citizens’ rights. Obviously I am in favor of locking up people when there is credible evidence that they are planning an act of terrorism, and I’m even fairly tolerant of NSA monitoring actions of those who seem suspicious. But building camps for people with “radical beliefs” sends up too many red flags for me to simply “not speak up” about it.

http://www.arktimes.com/ArkansasBlog/archives/2015/07/20/wesley-clark-proposes-internment-camps-for-radical-muslims

One Defining Moment?

Does your life have one specific event that makes you think back on your life in terms of “before that moment” and “after that moment”? In the novel that I just completed, the defining moment for almost all of the characters would be Pearl Harbor. For most Americans living at the time, Pearl Harbor was quite memorable and certainly impacted many American lives. But for Michi Fujita and Jackson Lieber, Pearl Harbor ended the innocence of their childhoods and thrust their lives into the “after” realm. Michi, because her family was relocated to an internment camp in Arkansas, and for Jackson it was because his father was killed in the Japanese bombing in Hawaii.

Even in my life, I have a defining moment that “ended my childhood” in a way–the death of my grandfather. When I was thirteen, I had all four of my grandparents living. Three of those four seemed “old” to me, in my teenage brain. The one that seemed as if he could go on living forever, was my grandfather Austin Walter. He’d retired from the navy into the mountains of North Georgia, where he practiced as a doctor out of a farmhouse built in the 1800s. He never slowed down, even seeing patients on the same morning that he died of a massive heart attack. His death triggered a series of painful, and life changing events that happened to my family over the next several years–all of which were transformative.

My mother lost her older brother to a brain tumor at thirteen, and that tragic event forever altered the dynamic of her own family. If you look to fiction for examples, many novels have one specific defining moment that puts the lives of the main characters on a different trajectory. For Scarlet O’Hara it was the outbreak of the Civil War, and for Scout Finch it would be her father agreeing to defend Tom.

So much of an author’s personal experiences seem to seep into his or her novels. Obviously, for the sake of the plot it helps to create major, life changing events for characters to work their way through. As readers, we like to see people struggle through difficult circumstances and come out the other side–even if they are a bit roughed up by the experience.

I would think that most of us have at least one big defining moment in our life that we’ve been forced to work through. What event or moment changed your life forever? I would love to hear from you about it.

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Making History Come Alive

Jimmie Kanaya in Uniform

I have spent the past 7 or 8 months immersed in World War 2 conducting research for my current novel, which I’m happy to say is nearing completion! Nothing brings the war to life for me more than first hand accounts. One amazing person from the war that I’ve come across was a medic named Jimmie Kanaya. While his family was living behind barbed wire in one of the 10 Internment Camps built to house displaced citizens of Japanese descent during the war, Jimmie fought with the 442nd division and was captured by the German Army. During his time in POW camps, he kept a journal documenting his experiences. He also speaks on film in a short video on The History Channel website.

I am in awe of this man’s spirit and courage. It is one thing to read about history in a text book, but to listen to a man speak about his own personal experiences is to become a part of the experience. As a nation, our stories all weave together–what effects one group of our citizens ultimately has an impact on everyone. Native Americans of old were much more in tune with this knowledge than we are today. For instance, take this quote from Chief Seattle: “Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.”

My heart is filled with gratitude to the countless Americans who fought with courage in wars. However, after spending so much time reading the narratives from the men who fought, in spite of the complete denial of civil liberties of their own families, I have a special respect for them. I hope that my novel will do its small part to pay tribute to them and their legacy.

photo credit: National World War Two Museum

Viewing Civil Liberties through a different generational lens…

As a writer of historical fiction, I always have to “check” myself against judging actions of the past through our current set of values and cultural norms.

The novel that I am currently writing is set during World War 2, and deals with the executive order issued by FDR to “evacuate” all people of Japanese ancestry from the west coast and relocate them to camps surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by soldiers. Granted I wasn’t alive during the 1940s, but from the extensive research I have conducted, most Americans believed that there was a military necessity for this at the time. Fear is a powerful motivator, and there was a widespread fear of further attack after Pearl Harbor. Therefore I would not presume to judge the people who lived in America at that time and assert that I would have defended the honor of my fellow citizens. Of course, I admire the people who did stand up protect their property while they were gone–which occurred in some instances. I don’t think we ever know for certain what we would have done in a given circumstance, even if we like that think that we’d have acted in a completely altruistic and humanitarian manner.

I did receive a bit of a shock recently when I was discussing my novel with a WW2 veteran in his 90s. After politely listening to me talk about the plot of the novel, he interjected that the American government was right to do what it did. He stated that the Japanese that were locked up did just fine after the war and it was for national security. I was honestly shocked to hear that this viewpoint would still be adhered to after so many years. From what I have read, not one of the people interned in the camps was ever found to be guilty of espionage. In fact, President Ronald Reagan apologized on behalf of the country years later and surviving internees received a reparation check from Uncle Sam.

Perhaps it is a lack of knowledge about this event that causes these misconceptions to linger. I know that I learned extremely little about the indignities suffered by these families as they were forced to sell their homes, cars and businesses to leave behind the only life they knew for a complete unknown. When they finally arrived at the camps, they lived in barracks covered with tar paper in crowded conditions. They had no privacy and no way to earn a decent living. In other words, they were completely stripped of their civil liberties. Shouldn’t this have been taught in depth during our high school and college history classes?

George Takei has spoken about his family’s experience in an internment camp in Arkansas. He has also brought us a Broadway musical Allegiance which I am extremely excited about. The best way for us to learn about what it cost the families is through the first hand accounts. I have read countless of these which are available online at the Densho site and at PBS. If this unfortunate time in our history is unfamiliar to you, I encourage you to take a look at these sites and make plans to see Allegiance.

As always, I welcome your comments and thoughts!camps7