Bottom Line: Fascinating look at a shameful period in history
“In the 1930s and ’40s in Angelina, California, Satomi is the only girl with one white parent and one Japanese parent. There are Japanese families, but Satomi is neither a part of the white community nor the Japanese one. She is “other” to both.Things get worse for Satomi–and all people with even a drop of Japanese blood–when Japan poses a threat to the United States. Her father joins the Navy, in part to fight for his country, and in part to protect his wife and daughter from racist citizens, but dies in the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Rather than being celebrated as a hero, his death is ignored by the neighbors who shun Satomi and her mother. Shortly thereafter, they are taken to internment camps where they are treated like animals.Satomi’s sudden loss of freedom is a terrible thing to bear, and she is disgusted by the utter lack of privacy, the open latrines, the sewage that runs behind their barrack, and the poorly built hovels that allow stinging dirt and dust to enter during frequent storms. But in the camp she finds a community for the first time. Not all of the Japanese residents welcome her, but Satomi and her mother find good friends in the family housed next to them in the barracks, and in the camp doctor, who is drawn to Satomi’s spirit and her mother’s grace. Satomi cares for Cora, one of the young orphans at the camp, as a daughter.Throughout it all, Satomi yearns for love. When she is finally freed from the internment camp, she heads east, finding a job, a shabby room, and several suitors in New York. There are men who would make her life easier, those who would take care of her, but Satomi insists on love–and finds it, in unexpected places.”
Thoughts: Satomi Baker is not like other girls in her hometown. Born to a Japanese mother and Caucasian father, she does not fit into any one group. Too exotic and foreign for some, not Japanese enough for others, she takes solace in the close and loving relationship she has with her mother and her determination to survive at all costs. This philosophy holds her in good stead during World War II and long after, as she attempts to adapt to life within and eventually outside a Japanese internment camp and later in a big city. Maureen Lindley’s A Girl Like You explores this fractured period in American history and creates a coming-of-age story for the ages.
Humans are inherent survivors and immensely adaptable, and the Japanese “residents” of the internment camp are no different. Given the poorest of shelters in a harsh environment with only the most rudimentary sanitation and educational facilities, these “residents” find ways to create homes out of hovels, schools where none existed, and happiness when it seems most impossible. The conditions depicted and the treatment of those of Japanese heritage both within and outside the camps are eye-opening. Ms. Lindley does an excellent job presenting the facts and letting them tell the story rather than trying to force the facts to fit her agenda or narrative.
Much of A Girl Like You is about Satomi’s search for acceptance. At each phase in her life, she tries to find love and happiness, but it always seems to elude her. Her journey is a painful one for a reader, as a reader has no problems identifying what she most needs and the easiest path to get there. Like all coming-of-age stories, however, Satomi’s path to the same recognition is slow and convoluted. One of the main barriers to her happiness, and one that creates a distance between the reader and her, is her anger. This anger pushes others away throughout the novel, and it pushes away the reader. One can sympathize with her for feeling angry at the injustice of the treatment she receives from others throughout her life, but it is difficult to feel sorry for her. It is a minute distinction but one has a profound impact on how much of Satomi’s poor decisions one can accept.
While Satomi may not be the most enjoyable or sympathetic of main characters, the supporting characters who surround her make up for it. She befriends an eclectic bunch of people who add life to this somewhat depressing novel. Everyone from her first boyfriend to her friends in the internment camp to those she knows and loves in New York, they provide a cross-range of socio-economic and political backgrounds that help Satomi on her journey, while providing some much needed relief from her broodiness.
A Girl Like You is more than historical fiction and more than a coming-of-age story or a cautionary tale of bigotry and racial inequality. It is an ambitious study of one unique young woman who has the dubious pleasure of being of mixed heritages at one of the times when the U.S. was at its most phobic, a period that did not end when World War II ended. Satomi’s experiences provide heartbreaking proof that the U.S. is neither as tolerant or forgiving as some would have the world believe. Through Satomi and her mother, Ms. Lindley bravely refuses to sweep this shameful period in U.S. history under the rug but exposes it in all its disgrace.