Mariko Nagai’s Dust of Eden is a lovely, spare story told by a young Japanese American protagonist who goes by both her American name, Mina, as well as her Japanese name, Masako. This book is a series of images and scenes that tell how a young girl in the United States in the 1940s navigates being both Mina and Masako, both American and Japanese, both feeling at home and feeling alien.
The novel is a set of poems from Mina’s point of view interspersed with letters to and from her best friend in Seattle as well as short personal essays Mina writes for school. These lyric pieces are arranged chronologically and geographically, with the first poem of the book titled “Seattle, Washington October 1941,” and the last poem called “Epilogue December 1945.” In the span between, Mina details her life in Seattle right before Pearl Harbor (a life filled with her parents, grandfather, brother, best friend, and school), and she writes us through her father’s unjust imprisonment in Montana after Pearl Harbor and her family’s internment first in Washington and then in Idaho, ending with her brother volunteering to fight for the Allies and her family finally being allowed to return to their Seattle home after the war is over.
This is a hard story to hear, and Nagai lets us in on Mina’s troubling experiences in a way that moves and unsettles us. These poems, letters, and brief essays give us a compelling picture of the Japanese–American experience of WWII, and we come away from the book changed.
We hear about Mina’s father’s letters home being largely blacked out by censors, we read of how Mina’s family had to board up their home in Seattle and how they were made to wear tags around their necks before being taken on a train to Idaho where the entire family had to live in one room with four cots, we learn of toilets being mere holes in the ground and the lack of hot water in the barracks in Idaho. We read in the poem “October 1942,”
Complete darkness after ten p.m. There is nowhere
to hide here; the eyes of the guard towers, with their bright
beams, roam nightly. Everyone’s sighs, worries, and com-
plaints fly through the night air, entering through the gaps.
Mina tells her and her family’s story in a simple, restrained way, yet these poems and prose pieces urgently push and pull at us even in their gentle, unassuming manner. The images here will get under your skin. These lyric pieces let you in on a world you may not have fully appreciated before—a world where a young girl’s entire life can be turned upside down for reasons that remain unclear even to the adults around her.
When Mina’s family arrives at the Minidoka relocation camp in Idaho, she writes in a wistful, almost dreamy way of the bleakness that is internment:
Here in Minidoka, everything changes in front of our eyes:
the earth that is dry and yellow
turns into barb-wired sky and the guards staring
down at us with rifles in their hands.
A life that was simple, going to school, coming
back home, a warm home and a flushing
toilet turned into a darker, night-like place,
where there are more shadows than light.
The dry land that greeted us when we first arrived
has turned into moist land,
and instead of tumbleweeds roaming the streets
men and women stroll hand in hand, laughing.
And the room, when we first entered, with wind blowing
hard between the cracks, turned into
something bearable, a home, but not quite,
but home nevertheless.
And the city by the sea, our home on Sycamore Street,
my friends at Garfield, my teachers’ names,
the walk on the paved streets, the downtown,
all that, seems like a wonderful dream. But only a dream.
In this poem, as in the other pieces in this verse novel, we are witness to Mina’s struggle. Here, as in the rest of the book, Nagai allows her protagonist to remain both hopeful and bitter at the same time. As Mina tells us, “everything changes in front of our eyes.” Nagai has captured a time and place where home is not where it once was, and where what seems hopeless might be a sign of hope, if only one can learn to read it.
Mina and her family are caught between rage and compliance. They struggle with knowing how to be both defiant and accepting. They question what it means to be both American and Japanese. This a powerful collection of pieces told from a young girl’s perspective, and we sense that her struggle to grow up is part and parcel of her struggle to understand and accept the shifts in America’s own perception of history and nationhood that are swirling in the Idaho dust all around her.
Mina, as the lyric voice of the poem, writes this of the camp at Minidoka:
during the night like a thief,
of sand in all corners
of the room where the wind left it,
leaving mounds like graves,
even on top of us, burying us
while we were asleep.
Dust enters through our noses
and mouths while we are asleep,
when we talk, when we breathe,
in this place just a few miles away from Eden,
where they know nothing of our lives,
where they know nothing of the people
who live behind the machine
guns and barbed wires,
buried in sand each and every morning.
It may be true that those living just a few miles away from the internment camp knew nothing of life in the camp, just as young readers today may know very little of this time in our country. This beautiful book brings a small part of these lives and this time back to us in lucid verse and limpid prose.
Reviewer: Maggie Trapp