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From The Asian Reporter, V14, #21 (May 18, 2004), page 24.
A time to dance
Music for Alice
By Allen Say
Houghton Mifflin, 2004
Hardcover, 32 pages, $17.00
By Josephine Bridges
My name is Alice. I grew up on a farm in California. And ever since I was a little girl I’ve loved dancing more than anything else. Often I wished Daddy’s tractor would turn into a coach and take me dancing, but it only made noise and dust."
On the facing page is a drawing of young Alice, who appears to be posing for a photograph, in a white dress with ruffles against the background of a dusty field where an old gray tractor sits motionless. We can see in this child’s eyes the difficulty of the life ahead of her, and the determination with which she will face it. Thus begins Allen Say’s latest masterpiece.
Music for Alice would be a splendid book anywhere and anytime, but there’s a local aspect to this story that makes it especially close to the hearts of Oregonians. Not long after Alice’s marriage and her move to Seattle, Alice and her husband Mark must "report to the assembly center in Portland, Oregon. We had to be ready in two weeks. We could take one suitcase each and nothing more."
Fortunately for the couple, they spent only a few days at the Portland Assembly Center, which now houses the Expo Center, where the last stop on the MAX yellow line commemorates this sad and shameful episode in our city’s history. Given the opportunity to work in the fields instead of going to an internment camp, Alice and Mark thin a crop of sugar beets in the eastern Oregon desert. When the job is finished, the workers are told they can go where they wish, as long as they stay in the county. "We were still prisoners, I thought, in a bigger prison."
Alice and Mark find a run-down house and work with their fellow field hands, and a loan from the U.S. government, to turn two hundred acres of desert land into a farm. Alice poses in yet another dusty field, this time in a shapeless gray dress, gloves, apron, and hat, against a background of bags and bags clustered together. "Our first harvest was a harvest of stones."
The farmers sell a beautiful crop of potatoes to Chicago restaurants, but the next season the market is glutted with onions and they cannot sell their bumper crop. "While I fretted, Mark read books." When Mark plants two hundred acres of gladioli, Alice wants to dance in the field. "I had almost forgotten that feeling."
"We became the largest gladiola bulb growers in the country, but there was no time for dancing." Alice and Mark decide to sell their Oregon farm and buy a small farm in California, where Mark dies. Alice returns to Portland, where her apartment "is quite near the old stockyard — the assembly center." But it is when she visits the site of the eastern Oregon farm that she finds the strangest and most wonderful of surprises waiting for her.
We are lucky to have two living treasures here among us in Portland: Alice Sumida, a testimony to endurance and grace, and Allen Say, who has given her story wings.