Monday, May 08, 2006

Book Review: Sleeping on Potatoes, Carl Nomura

Sleeping on Potatoes is an intensely personal account of the life of Carl Nomura, a second generation American of Japanese origin. The memoir takes the reader through the various phases of his life, from the time he was born through his life after retirement, with a little bit of family history thrown in. On the face of it, it is an entirely ordinary story, probably the story of millions of immigrant families who try to build a life in America.

Framed within the bounds of ordinariness, however, is a gem of a tale, a tale that is poignant, heart-wrenching, and, on many levels, quite extraordinary.

Nomura came into this world in a boxcar as the son of two railroad workers in Deer Lodge, Montana, into a life of abject poverty and into what, under the best of circumstances, could be described as a dysfunctional family. Kazuichi, Nomura's father, an incredibly cruel man, ruled the family with an iron hand, drinking, gambling and taking expensive vacations while his wife, Mizuko, slaved away on their vegetable farm, and did the housecleaning, shopping and cooking.
Kazuichi even went so far as to refuse to arrange for a doctor or midwife to be with her when it was time to deliver her first child.... But somehow, she managed to deliver her first son all by herself. Years later, she told us, 'When I started pulling out the placenta, I wondered if it was attached to me inside'.
Mizuko ended up delivering five of her six children by herself.

Kazuichi's cruelty also extended to his children. He sent his first four children (two from a previous marriage) to live with relatives in Japan because they "cramped his style". He beat them regularly and for no reason.

All this against the backdrop of a nagging poverty that refused to shed its shackles no matter where the family moved or what they did for a living. When the entire family moved to California, while the parents and the older kids worked at the local cannery, Yosh, Normura's eight year old sister, "washed our clothes, cleaned the house, supervised us, and cooked. On payday, she went to the market for some vegetables and the short ribs, which cost eight cents a pound, From this she made the stock for our week long main dish: soup."

By the time the Great Depression rolled around, although nothing happened to improve their life of poverty, something did happen to improve the quality of their lives. Kazuichi died. "No member of his family wept at the funeral.... Suddenly, the quality of my mother's life improved, for there was no one around to batter her."

The lowest point of Nomura's life, though, was yet to come. World War II followed the Great Depression, and along with it came the toughest test of his resilience - the internment of the Japanese at camps built on barren land dotted across the mid-western and western United States. The family lost its home and whatever possessions it had accumulated by that time and was herded into Manzanar, one of the "Relocation Centers" in California.

The ignominy of being confined to the camps and labeled an enemy of the United States although he was an American citizen and the physical pain that accompanied back-breaking work as a farm laborer on beet farms and potato farms (internees could opt to work as farm laborers which afforded a little bit more freedom than being locked up in the camps) were compounded by the emotional scars of seeing German and Italian prisoners of war receiving better treatment.

This, as Nomura describes, was the turning point.
I must...prepare myself to oppose people in powerful positions or influence from disenfranchising innocent American citizens. This required two things: an education to show me what to do, and enough achievements so that people would respond to me.
Even from the wretched experiences at the internment camps, Nomura managed to take away a few lessons: "I learned about the miserable lives of the migratory workers; that we can endure great pain by sheer will; and the effectiveness of teamwork." Not to forget poker strategies.

Following the end of the war, the narrative moves on to college life (interrupted by a brief stint in the army when the United States decides they want him on their side, after all), marriage and children. In a section entitled "Marriage", Nomura provides endearing descriptions of his wife and each of his children. His relationship with his children stands in stark contrast to his experiences with his own father - Nomura takes intense pride in his children (saying, quite simply, "She is great" to describe one of his daughters or "It's hard for a proud parent to be modest about him" to describe one of his sons) and both he and his wife develop an enviable, easygoing rapport with them.

Nomura credits his wife, Lou (herself the much-loved daughter of kind, thoughtful parents) for their success in raising happy, well-adjusted children. Part of the equation, is also, surely, Mizuko's love for her children and her incredible force of will and determination to do what was necessary and with stoicism for her family. She, who tolerated her husband's cruelty, ran a farm and household by herself, gave birth to her children by herself, disguised herself as a man while breastfeeding her child just to she could find a job on the railroad, passed on a legacy to Nomura that triumphed over any debilitating ones that Kazuichi may have passed on.

And that legacy comes shining through in this passage that Nomura recounts of Mizuko writing off the debt owed to them by their customers (they ran a "cash and carry" store at that time),
My mother...wrote off his debt. Then she gave him two bags of groceries to sustain them for the long drive. The toothless man wept and thanked my mother for the only kindness he had seen since coming to California.
The book harkens back to this idea of kindness almost 90 pages later as Nomura and Lou try to work on their shaky marriage and he hits upon the idea, "From kindness comes love."

This, for me, is the central idea of this book. For without that redeeming factor, it is mighty difficult to see how someone with the background that Nomura was handed could make anything of their lives, let alone become highly educated, have a long-lasting, successful marriage and a loving family, build an incredibly successful career rising to top management in a multinational company, and nurture deep, satisfying friendships wherever they went.

The first half of the book - dealing with family history, the growing up years, the years in the Japanese concentration camps, the years in the army and the portions dealing with Nomura's family life as a husband, father and grandfather - proceeds in a largely chronological manner and makes for compelling, unputdownable reading.

The rest of the book is devoted to descriptions of friends, career, health, retirement and to life after Lou's death in an accident. The major drawback in this second half is that it hop scotches its way through, weaving back and forth between the years. According to the preface, the author's original idea was to write a series of short stories which were later sewn together as a book. Unfortunately, the original structure leaves its imprint, particularly in the latter half. There is also the sense that Nomura attempts to include every last detail of his experiences, particularly in the chapter dealing with his health, which slows down the reading.

Once you get past this organizational glitch, the book is well worth your time. While the events that are recounted in Sleeping on Potatoes (a reference to the piles of potatoes that served as beds on the potato farm where Nomura worked during the internment) are filled with pathos, Nomura paints the pictures lucidly, in simple, evocative language and in a matter-of-fact tone infused with warmth and humor, sparing time to dwell on plenty of endearing anecdotes involving his family, neighbors and friends (and a few animals thrown in for good measure).

It is a story you should read not because it is a first-hand, eye witness account of a life lived in the most adverse of circumstances, but because it is the story of determination, perseverance, kindness, love and good humor getting the better of those adversities.

Crossposted on Desicritics.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wonderful review of a very poignant life! We need more Nomuras today in the US to counter growing totalitarianism and intolerance.

You should be in the front pages of newspapers, writing so well!!

pramod
Atlanta

Sujatha said...

Thanks Pramod. Whatever happened to your blog? Did you start it?

remainconnected said...

Hi Sujatha,

I have not read this book but the briefing that you have mentioned here and highlighted the plot of the story makes it all the more tempting to pick this book.

I would borrow the book from you,if I don't find that,can I ?
Right now have some other things to do,will take it later..

Keep blogging.Take care as I read in one of your comments that you are exhausted and need looooooots of energy at the moment :-)

Rgds,
tanay

shubhaprada said...

Hey Sujatha,
How are you.. Long time since we caught up..
:-)

Swapna said...

Sounds like an interesting book. Reading your review makes me want to read it.

Well-written.

- Swapna

Sujatha said...

Tanay and Swapna (love your image!), thanks for your comments.

Shubha, been busy moving houses and stuff, will catch up soon. :) How are you?

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