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From The Asian Reporter, V17, #46 (November 13, 2007), page 16.
On the edge
Home of the Brave
By Allen Say
Houghton Mifflin, 2002
Hardcover, 32 pages, $17.00
By Josephine Bridges
In a note at the end of Home of the Brave, author and illustrator Allen Say describes his response to an exhibit of World War II internment camps at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. "Now the statistics took on a human face and voice. I stared and listened. And what I saw and heard turned into yet another personal journey. This is that story."
The dreamlike journey begins at the mouth of a gorge where a man is putting his kayak into a swiftly flowing river. "The riffles turned to waves and the waves turned to rapids. The steady roar grew louder. Suddenly the river fell away." On the facing page is Sayís watercolor painting of the tiny kayak plunging down a towering waterfall.
The protagonist survives, though "the churning water tore away the kayak and paddle, his helmet and life jacket." He is nearly submerged in an underground river in the only illustration in Home of the Brave that shows his face. Young, barely a man, his eyes are already haunted.
A ladder leads to a perfectly square opening at the top of a cave the river flows through. The man climbs up into a desert where he sees "two small figures crouched against an adobe wall." They turn out to be children, depicted in the almost-sepia tone that Allen Say occasionally uses to breathtaking, heartbreaking effect. Tags dangle from their coats. When the protagonist asks what the children are doing here, one answers, "Waiting to go home."
A dust storm engulfs the trio as they walk through the desert. The man sees lights up ahead, but when the storm subsides, a long line of identical rude buildings confronts them. When he enters one of the buildings, he finds a nametag like the ones the children wear, with his name on it. In the eerie painting that accompanies this sequence, the shadow of a man in a rectangle of sunlight is cast across a wooden floor toward a broken window, where a face that could be the protagonistís looks in from pitch darkness.
When a sound startles him and he runs outside, a sea of children "like one large body with many eyes" entreats him, "Take us home." Suddenly, loudspeakers and searchlights invade the emptiness, and the children run away against repeated orders to "Get back inside." Alone again, once more in daylight, in a place similar to but not exactly like the spot where he emerged from the underground river, he finds a tag with the same name as his motherís, climbs down the ladder into darkness, and falls asleep. What he awakens to will surprise both him and readers.
Home of the Brave is one the most thought-provoking books youíre likely to encounter, out there on the edge where Allen Say keeps taking us.