Oregon will celebrate 150 years of statehood in 2009, and to commemorate this event, almost every library in the state will encourage reading and discussion of Lauren Kessler's monumental pageturner, Stubborn Twig, the story of three generations of the Yasui family and their century in Oregon.
As Lauren Kessler writes in her preface, "We want to be proud to be Americans — not with aggressive jingoism but with sincerity, with respect for land, people, and principle. But it is sometimes difficult, for our past is clotted with ugly episodes: invasions, land-grabbing, forced marches, slavery, lynchings, mass internment." Lauren Kessler asks the reader to confront this difficulty and consider who we are, as Americans and as Oregonians.
Stubborn Twig is divided into three sections: issei, nisei, and sansei.
"Issei: The First Generation" begins in the Hood River Valley, where 21-year-old Masuo Yasui has just arrived by train in 1908. He left Japan five years earlier, "riding the crest of the country's greatest wave of emigration." He had worked on the railroads of the Pacific Northwest, "a minor hero for his skill at throwing a monkey wrench from the moving handcar, striking unwitting jackrabbits that — much to the joy of the meat-starved crew — made it into the next day's soup." Thirty-eight years later, at age 61, he "lost his house, his business, and all but one of his farms," and "missed the birth of his first two grandchildren and the wedding ceremonies of a daughter and a son."
"Growing up nisei anywhere was difficult. Growing up nisei in Hood River, epicenter of anti-Japanese agitation, was even more trying. But growing up a Yasui nisei in Hood River, the offspring of the city's only Japanese businessman and the valley's undisputed nikkei leader, was the toughest of all." Tough enough that tragedy strikes one of Masuo Yasui's eight children in the second section of Stubborn Twig. There is triumph as well, particularly in the story of one son's escape to Denver, and freedom, in 1942. Lauren Kessler calls it "a scene that could not have been better scripted by Hollywood." But by the time "Nisei: The Second Generation" draws to a close with the signing into law of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, another member of the Yasui family has been lost.
Two Yasui grandchildren still live and work in the Hood River Valley, growing pears, cherries, and apples on land Masuo Yasui bought in 1932, but the Yasui sansei are in many ways "as diverse as the baby-boomer generation of which they are a small part." One has written a play about her father's struggle for justice; another has made a documentary "of her own journey of discovery as she learned about her family's past." It is also in "Sansei: The Third Generation" that tragedy strikes the Yasui family once more.
Stubborn Twig is not only the story of one family, but also a look at the family's neighbors, one of whom "sicced her dog on [a] terrified eighth-grade girl." There was also a gas-station operator who "reasoned aloud that there was no difference between a 'nisei Japanese and a nisei German' — and he was a nisei German," and took down his racist sign. Lauren Kessler never asks the reader: Would you give a pregnant internee craving fruit juice the only thing you could find — syrup from a can of peaches; or would you use a child's drawings of the Panama Canal as evidence of his father's espionage; or would you, like "the vast majority" of citizens of Hood River, keep silent? She doesn't have to; these are questions we readers are bound to ask ourselves as we consider our history and ponder the question of who we are.
* * *
Oregon Reads 2009
Lauren Kessler's Stubborn Twig: Three Generations in the Life of a Japanese American Family has been selected as the Oregon Reads book for 2009. Many events are scheduled throughout Oregon. To learn more, visit <www.oregonreads2009.org>