February 16, 2006


Dear Miss Breed: True Stories of the Japanese American Incarceration during World War II and a Librarian Who Made a Difference. By Joanne Oppenheim. Scholastic. $22.99.

     It was greatly shaming to America.  At the start of World War II, within hours of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government rounded up hundreds of Japanese immigrants and put them in federal prisons as possible spies or saboteurs.  A few months later, all remaining Japanese Americans on the West Coast were abruptly moved out of their homes and into government-run camps.  Two-thirds of them were U.S. citizens.  Many were children.  They lived in the camps for three-and-a-half years.

     It is possible, with hindsight, to understand – if not approve – the government’s actions.  The Pearl Harbor attack seemed to come out of nowhere; why not expect attacks within the continental U.S. as well?  The first Japanese taken into custody were aliens, not citizens – never mind that many had lived in the U.S. for decades and could not become citizens because of restrictive U.S. immigration laws.  The remainder of those taken from their homes were citizens by birth – but who knew what plots their families might have been hatching?  Had not Charles Lindbergh, a true American hero, later become an apologist for the Nazis?

     If there are chilling parallels between the incarceration of Japanese Americans and the treatment of Arabs and Arab Americans after September 11, 2001, there are also heartening differences, as Joanne Oppenheim points out: there were no camps set up for those of Arabian descent, no mass confiscation of homes and property.  There was, in fact, a public attempt to recognize that the vicious murderers who flew hijacked planes into the World Trade Center did not represent all Arabs or all of Islam.

     There was no such attempt in 1941.  Recognition of the displaced Japanese Americans had to come from individuals – of whom a notable, little-known one was a librarian named Clara Breed.  She had come to know middle-school and high-school Japanese children in San Diego, she realized the great wrong that had been done to them, and she responded with kindness and persistence – by becoming someone with whom they could communicate regularly, who would lend them a friendly ear, write back to them, even bring small items to the camps to the extent possible and allowable.

     Dear Miss Breed is a wonderful, uplifting story of an ordinary woman made extraordinary to those she helped by her insistence on treating them like human beings, not possible agents of the “yellow peril.”  Oppenheim’s book is largely made up of letters, whose mundane nature packs a slowly building emotional wallop.  “Well, mamma had to go to a certain office, so while we were going, we saw a dead snake.  I saw a rat skin too.  There are lots of red ants around here.  There are Scorpions too.  There was on[e] under our house.  I think it is all very nice here except for the heat, sand, and insects.”

     The letters are printed with their original grammatical and spelling errors; and while they often deal with elements of the incarceration that did become more widely known – a riot at Santa Anita, for example – they are mostly about attempts to manage everyday life.  Those attempts had to begin anew when the war was over and the camps finally closed.  Reintegration into a society that had abruptly expelled them was often difficult, but these young people – now several years older, or several lifetimes – seem mostly to have remained upbeat: “Here is what I say: there is no need to be bitter. …There is nothing to gain by eternally brooding for things that might have been.”  There were so-called “redress hearings” during the 1980s, and some families received some compensation, but obviously there was no way to replace the lost years.  Miss Breed was a lifeline during those years: “Clara Breed taught me not all people are prejudiced through her kindness and caring ways.”  This book makes a fine and long-overdue memorial to Miss Breed and what she did.  It seems, in fact, too modest.  How much better we would be as a nation if we erected, in addition to our many monuments to brave fighters, a few to people with Miss Breed’s kind of quiet courage.

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