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From The Asian Reporter, V14, #23 (June 1, 2004), page 11.
Just be prepared to find life very different here
The Legend of Fire Horse Woman
By Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston
Hardcover, 329 pages, $23.00
By Josephine Bridges
While Sayo, born in the unlucky but powerful year of the Fire Horse, may be the stuff of legend, this novel is also the story of her daughter Hana and her granddaughter Terri. The Legend of Fire Horse Woman spans the Pacific Ocean from Japan to California, and the turbulent years from 1902 to 1945, in two stories told concurrently and enclosed by a mystical prologue and epilogue. Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston does what she set out to do in this novel, and she set out to do a lot.
The earlier story — told in italics for reasons incomprehensible to me since most chapters begin with a setting and a year — follows Sayo from her betrothal to a Japanese man living in California at the turn of the last century to the disappearance and presumed death in the San Francisco earthquake of her great love, a labor organizer and Native American activist (Houston uses the word "Indian," which may make some uneasy) named Cloud. The setting and time span of the later story are compressed to the California high desert internment camp of Manzanar during the last three years of the Second World War. The juxtaposition of the two stories offers the reader both mysteries and solutions, but how these relate becomes clear only as both stories are ending. It’s a tantalizing way to construct a plot.
The Legend of Fire Horse Woman has many strengths, but two stand out among them. First of all, this novel is a staggeringly multicultural work. Far from portraying only Japanese and Japanese Americans, Houston presents Native Americans through Cloud and through the mystical nature of the land on which Manzanar is situated. Terri’s sister Carmen "ran with the Jewish crowd" back in Los Angeles, and "when the word came that the Japanese had to move away, it was the rabbi and some temple members who came to the house offering condolences." Hana yearns for "malasadas, round donuts without holes, delicious, and sticky with sugar, baked by Filipino friends in Los Angeles." Chinese railroad workers who couldn’t find a resting place in a white graveyard are buried in a Japanese garden in San Jose. Italians, Portuguese, Irish, Scots, and Slavonians appear in this narrative. There’s even a Southern white man of admirable intelligence, integrity, and compassion here. Billy, a soldier Terri befriended while he was guarding the camp, writes to her from Europe, "Our company has been hearing a lot about the 100th Infantry Battalion who are Nisei soldiers fighting over here. We hear they’re real brave and tough. Did a fantastic job at Anzio. Some come out of the camps. Hell, I don’t know if I could do that if they locked up my folks."
The other great strength of this novel is the way it brings history alive. Maybe we all know now that the war ended, the innocent Japanese Americans were released from captivity, and the government of the United States eventually issued a formal apology to the citizens it imprisoned, but all those people enduring all those years of internment didn’t know when or even if it would end.
"Was her journey in Bii Koku (the beautiful land), begun in Hiroshima thirty-nine years before, to end in this wasteland?" wonders Sayo. "Who knows if she will ever see the ocean again?" wonders Terri. "Though it is Thanksgiving Day, Hana knows for them in camp it will be no different from any other day."
Although not every detail is neatly tied up in a bow — nothing wrong with that — The Legend of Fire Horse Woman ends just about as happily, and surprisingly, as anything can end. As Sayo says, "Even here in this godforsaken camp love finds a way."