From The Asian Reporter, V13, #8 (February 18-24, 2003), page 16.
Three American stories – one children’s book
Baseball Saved Us
Written by Ken Mochizuki
Illustrated by Dom Lee
Lee & Low Books, 1993
In 1941, Imperial Japan attacked United States Navy and Army bases in
the American Pacific Territory of Hawai’i. Soon after, President
Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared war on Emperor Hirohito. Soon after
that, the President ordered West Coast Japanese Americans out of their
homes, their schools, their jobs and businesses. Families were forced to
report to United States Army collection sites, then bussed or sent by
train to desolate prison camps.
Every federal, state, and local system of government and justice,
backed by brutal media, acted in concert to steal an entire
ethnic-American community’s liberty. Innocent children, working fathers,
elderly aunties, were kept behind military barbed wire on an awful
assumption of mass disloyalty, deviousness, sabotage.
The Emperor surrendered in Tokyo Bay, in 1945. Families were bussed out
without a word (including a string of U.S. Supreme Court denials) until
President Ronald Reagan finally acknowledged the wrong, and formally
apologized, four decades later.
Author Ken Mochizuki and artist Dom Lee tell a terrific children’s
story. They tell a modern one — tender and tough and most of all: true.
All these elements are necessary if kid tales are going to retain their
traditional value in contemporary America. Relevancy and efficacy, it
seems, are key. Wimpy pink princesses, white-steeded studs, and
foul-breathed dragons are no longer very useful. Democracy and racism and
cultural integrity are a bit harder to do, but Messrs. Mochizuki and Lee
do them all. Wonderfully.
More wonder, if only libraries and bookstores didn’t catalogue or
shelve Baseball Saved Us in sections set aside for "Japanese
Americans- Relocation," or "World War, 1939-1945," or
"Prejudices-Fiction" — not the aisles careful mothers or
conscientious uncles wander when shopping for nice children’s stories.
Baseball Saved Us is not only for Japanese America, not just for
history buffs, and not intended for baseballers.
Baseball Saved Us is told through the eyes and voice of an eight to
10 year-old boy. He is an unnamed American boy, in a simple brown T, under
a yellow billed cap. He calls his mother, Mom. His father is Dad. His big
brother is Teddy. Race enters only because that is why he and
Teddy, Mom and Dad, are "in the middle of nowhere … behind a
barbed-wire fence. Soldiers with guns made sure we stayed there."
"It’s wrong that we’re in here." Dad says. "We’re
Americans too!" And that’s the end of it. The author doesn’t get
stuck there, in that geological or sociological American desert. Instead,
Japanese American families get into gear, and do what Old Worlders do
best, do what America needs most — keep our eyes on the ball, ignore the
craziness up in the raucous stands. Jobless and angry men get organized,
idle and rebellious teens get trained, mothers make team uniforms out of
pin-striped cotton mattress covers. Play ball.
Baseball Saved Us is finally a story about the redemptive power of
sport. By practice practice practice, by marshalling his attention, by
disciplining his rage, a small athlete spins essential esteem for himself
and deserved respect from others.
In 1942, our government tore the "American" part of Japanese
American off the page. Soon after, Japanese Americans proved to themselves
what tenacity and grace resides in their ancestral bones. Soon after that,
Japanese America proved to its tormentors what loyalty and courage lay in
its immigrant heart by taking up The War’s most battle-decorated arms
against America’s fascist enemies. This is an American story. Baseball
Saved Us is an American story. Both are tough and tender. Both are
true. Both are what children need from a story.