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From The Asian Reporter, V14, #12 (March 16, 2004), page 17.
Sage and quirky
A Jar of Dreams
By Yoshiko Uchida
Paperback, 131 pages, $4.99
By Josephine Bridges
"I hate having a name like Rinko Tsujimura that nobody can pronounce or remember. And more than anything, I wish I could just be like everybody else." The eleven-year-old narrator of A Jar of Dreams doesn’t stand much chance of having her wish come true. Not only is she a Japanese American in 1935, she is an eccentric little individual with a distinctive voice. Reading this delicious novel aimed at young teenagers is like chatting on the phone with a friend who can make you laugh even while she’s describing the worst day she’s ever had.
"The reason I hate and despise Wilbur J. Starr is because he is so mean and nasty." Laundry owner Starr isn’t content with yelling racist insults at Rinko and her little brother Joji as they walk on the sidewalk outside his business. When Rinko’s mother opens a laundry, he tries to drive them out of business with threatening notes, theft, and even killing, but he doesn’t know Rinko’s family.
Rinko’s father wants to close his barbershop and open an auto repair shop, but he’s not letting his present circumstances drag him down. "That’s only one of his dreams, and he’s always telling us not to be afraid to have all the big dreams we want." Rinko’s older brother Cal is studying to be an engineer, though he expects he’ll end up selling produce "like all the other Japanese guys" he knows. He tells Rinko that no public school in California is ever going to hire a Japanese teacher, but she isn’t giving up her dream either.
"I hoped Aunt Waka wasn’t going to be a pale and finicky eater as well as a tragic presence." A Jar of Dreams opens with the news that Rinko’s mother’s younger sister is coming to visit from Japan. Aunt Waka hasn’t had an easy life, but she hasn’t let it make her what Rinko dreads, "a melancholy figure who did a lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth." When Waka tells Rinko never to be ashamed of herself, Rinko realizes that Waka is "exactly the kind of person she was telling me to be."
Rinko is a fine person at the story’s opening. Her bedroom is inconveniently located, and her family has to walk through it to get to several other rooms. She has a "do not disturb" sign for each of her three doors, but she rarely uses them. "I usually leave all the doors to my room open, because I can be a very accommodating person when I want to be." At the end of the novel, Rinko has grown in confidence, kindness, and wisdom.
As the ship carrying her aunt back to Japan prepares to sail, the people on board throw "pastel-colored streamers from the railing down to their friends on the pier." Holding on to her end of the streamer that connects her to the aunt she’s come to trust with her deepest secrets, Rinko wishes she could tell her aunt that "this had been one of the best summers of my entire life, and that from then on I’d think of everything that happened to me as ‘Before Aunt Waka’ of ‘After Aunt Waka,’ because she was the one who made the difference in our lives, not Wilbur Starr."
Eleven years old in 1935, Rinko would be 79 this year. It’s easy to imagine her giving sage and quirky advice to a great-niece having a bad day.