Sumiko and her brother, Tak-Tak, live with their grandfather, aunt, uncle, and older male cousins on a flower farm in southern California. She is the only Japanese girl in her sixth-grade class, and the other kids haven't warmed up to her. Since Sumiko's parents died in a car accident, she has been careful to work hard on the farm and take care of her little brother.
Although she hears talk of the wars in Europe and in Japan, they seem very far away to the twelve-year-old. But once Pearl Harbor is attacked, the realities of World War II and true prejudice change Sumiko's life in unimaginable ways.
Although Cynthia Kadohata's Weedflower is marketed to middle readers, it is really a book for everyone. The drastic changes in Japanese-Americans' lives after Pearl Harbor are exemplified by what happens to Sumkio's family. Many of us know that American citizens of Japanese ancestry were put in relocation camps, but few us know the details or the anguish of the families affected.
In Sumiko's case, the family lost everything that they had worked two generations to build: farm, business, home, and personal possessions. Although they were full citizens, they were denied all rights and freedoms. Sumiko's family was split up and had no way of knowing if they would ever be reunited again. Dreams were shattered, and cultural traditions were destroyed.
One of the more interesting parts of Sumiko's story is when she and some family members are relocated to Arizona on what was Native American lands. The contrast between how the U.S. government treated Japanese-Americans and Indians is striking and eye-opening. Although considered potential enemies of the state, the Japanese were fed, had electricity, and were able to build irrigation ditches and grow food. The Native Americans, on the other hand, were given nothing. Not only was part of their land taken away but they had no access to resources or even to reliable education.
The narrative is told from Sumiko's viewpoint, which keeps the novel very much a coming-of-age story. The book tells it like it was and does not devolve into finger pointing. The basis of the novel is found in the author's own family history.
Weedflower won or was nominated for almost twenty awards. The historical novel would make a good book club pick for parent-child and for adult book clubs. Kadohata focuses on different levels of prejudice, conflicts among the generations, changing cultural identification, and Sumiko's accelerated maturity. The reading guide is especially helpful for parents and teachers.
I listened to the audiobook (Listening Library) read by Kimberly Farr. Farr is not only believable as a twelve-year-old but her accents are excellent. When I was masters student, I took two semesters of Japanese, and although I am not good with languages, Farr's pronunciations sounded authentic to me. My audiobook edition included an informative interview with the author.
To learn more about Cynthia Kadohata and her books and to hear an audio sample, visit the author's website.
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This review will also be linked at Julie's blog Booking Mama: "Every Saturday, [she hosts] a feature called Kid Konnection -- a regular weekend feature about anything related to children's books."